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$70 million and counting? Cook County taxpayers face massive tab for sheriff board firings

Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Steven Schmadeke

Former Cook County correctional officer Daniel Robinson was in uniform when he allegedly groped and kissed an underage girl in 2013, according to court and final disciplinary records.

Jamie O’Malley, an ex-deputy sheriff, was off-duty driving home drunk from a party when he struck a pedestrian in Franklin Park in 2012, then asked responding officers, “Can you please help me? I’m a sheriff,” according to a final disciplinary report in that case; the pedestrian later died. And onetime correctional officer Edgar Singleton Jr. is serving a 50-year sentence after being convicted of first-degree murder in a 2013 Indiana road-rage slaying.

The three men were fired by Sheriff Tom Dart’s personnel board years ago but could get their jobs back as part of a still-growing legal morass around what a higher court has said were Dart’s illegal appointments to his disciplinary board. The Illinois Appellate Court ruled that Dart broke state law when he appointed one of the members of his Cook County Sheriff’s Merit Board — the personnel board that handles hirings, firings and all suspensions of over 30 days — to a term less than six years as the law requires. That ruling affects decisions made by the board from 2011 to 2015.

At least 110 officers fired or suspended for allegedly assaulting jail detainees, sexually harassing co-workers, stealing money from inmates, soliciting bribes, selling heroin and other reasons could have their slate wiped clean by the Appellate Court’s ruling, according to merit board disciplinary records obtained by the Tribune through an open records request. Taxpayers could be on the hook for millions of dollars in back pay for that four-year period cited in the court ruling, according to the sheriff’s office.

There is now evidence that the problem could go back a decade or longer and the bill could be $40 million to $70 million, up from an original estimate of $15 million, attorneys for the affected officers say.

Officers’ attorneys lay the blame for the costly violations on Dart. “If Dart had followed the law in the first place the county taxpayer wouldn’t have to foot the bill,” said Dana Kurtz, who has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of former officers. Dart is an attorney and former state lawmaker.

But the sheriff’s policy chief, Cara Smith, said the practice predates Dart’s term in office and added that for years no one knew that the board appointments were a problem — including the attorneys for former officers who for years never raised the issue.

“Obviously we weren’t aware of this issue; otherwise it would’ve been remedied a long time ago,” Smith said.

Some 20 lawsuits have been filed and more are on the way. In two of those cases, Cook County judges recently ordered that fired officers Dixie Rios and Joel Mireles be reinstated and that Rios get a $300,000 check for back pay.

According to final merit board disciplinary reports, Mireles was terminated after being caught on video allegedly punching a jail detainee. He denied at his personnel hearing that he violated department use-of-force rules.

“He’s happy to be back at work,” said his attorney Christopher Cooper, who said Mireles believes he was wrongly accused. “He believes that justice has been done.”

Rios was fired for allegedly passing on a message from her jailed brother, a high-ranking gang member, instructing a crime victim to go to court and to tell authorities to drop charges in a case involving another Cook County Jail detainee, according to the disciplinary report in her case. She has also denied the allegations in her case.

Rios went on leave eight days after returning to work, while Mireles is helping process inmates into the jail. Dart will seek to fire the officers again before a legally valid merit board, the sheriff’s office says.

The Appellate Court ruling has opened the floodgates for lawsuits from fired sheriff’s officers — at least 16 lawsuits have been filed since last year. Among them is Kelly Mrozek, who was fired in 2013 after being convicted of child endangerment when her 3-year-old son was found wandering her Orland Park neighborhood wearing only underpants and flip-flops, according to a disciplinary report.

A few hours after the boy was placed in his godparents’ custody, witnesses reported Mrozek pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant near her home in her marked squad car. Mrozek left the squad car open and unlocked and got into a restaurant employee’s unlocked car, where the employee found her holding a red plastic cup, according to the report.

Years earlier, she was demoted after she was acquitted on a 2006 public indecency charge after her neighbors in Frankfort reported her having sex in her backyard hot tub, the Tribune previously reported.

More disciplined officers who never challenged the personnel board’s decision in court could also win their jobs back and be awarded lost wages if a Cook County judge allows a pending proposed class-action lawsuit to go forward, which could automatically add similarly situated officers.

That could include former Correctional Sgt. Daniel Robinson, who was charged in 2013 by police in west suburban Berkeley with criminal sexual abuse and unlawful restraint after allegedly groping a 17-year-old girl, grabbing her hands and telling her not to be nervous because he was a cop, according to court and disciplinary records. The alleged assault ended when the girl’s stepfather found them in the laundry room of their apartment building and Robinson fled, according to merit board disciplinary records.

Prosecutors dropped criminal charges a year later but, after a personnel hearing, the merit board fired Robinson. He couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Deputy O’Malley was driving drunk and carrying his service weapon when he struck Marcial Marias-Quevedo, 41, in 2012 and the pedestrian died, according to court and disciplinary records. Like many officers who stand trial on felony charges, O’Malley opted to have a Cook County judge hear his aggravated DUI case. The judge found O’Malley guilty of misdemeanor charges and sentenced him to two years of probation and 300 hours of community service. O’Malley couldn’t be reached for comment.

Many officers were fired by the merit board for racking up unauthorized absences, but at least eight were fired for using excessive force on detainees at the Cook County Jail. One officer was fired after stealing an iPad that a Cook County state’s attorney had left in a break room.

Another officer was fired after he and three other sheriff’s deputies were alleged to have drunkenly yelled the N-word and other profanities at black patrons of a Michigan bar in 2011, according to a final disciplinary decision. The officer, James Przybyla, also allegedly “inappropriately” placed his hand on a female patron’s back and asked responding police officers in Michigan to let him go as a “professional courtesy,” according to the decision.

Przybyla filed a lawsuit last year asking for his job back and to be awarded back pay. On Tuesday, Pryzbyla said in a statement from his attorney that he “extremely disputes” the charges and is “outraged to learn that his career” ended on “false charges” before an “improper board.”

One correctional officer was fired after failing to disclose she’d had children with two gang members who later were jailed on the tier she guarded.

Some officers who lost paychecks while they were suspended could also be getting back pay.

Dart wanted to fire correctional officer Sandra Hattan after her son was able to get her service weapon and fire it at least four times during a domestic altercation with his ex-girlfriend in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood in 2013, according to a disciplinary decision.

The board, in a somewhat rare decision, instead suspended her for 180 days, the decision noted. Hattan couldn’t be reached for comment.

If a judge orders the county to repay her and other officers for that lost time, their suspensions could retroactively become paid vacation.

Twitter @SteveSchmadeke

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