A coalition of news organizations summoned by the Chicago Tribune is seeking to block the Chicago Park District’s efforts to seal an ongoing lawsuit alleging Mayor Lori Lightfoot shouted obscenities and defamed a Park District attorney during an appeal to the subject of a controversial statue of Christopher Columbus.
Earlier this month, the Park District asked a Cook County judge to shield from the public all records of the libel lawsuit brought by George Smyrniotis, a former Park District attorney who alleges Lightfoot blocked a deal which had been concluded with an Italian-American organization to allow the statue to be displayed in a parade.
Smyrniotis also alleges the mayor shouted lewd comments at him and another Park District attorney during an impassioned Zoom call, stating that while they were “out there stroking your d—-on the statue of Columbus, I’m trying to stop the Chicago cops from being shot and you’re trying to get them shot.
The Park District argues the case should be sealed to protect attorney-client privilege, as it is defending itself in a separate lawsuit brought by an Italian-American organization against Lightfoot’s decision to remove a statue of Columbus in the Little Italy following protests in the city in 2020.
But the coalition of news organizations — which also includes the Chicago Sun-Times, Illinois Press Association, WBBM-Ch. 2, WMAQ-Ch. 5, WLS-Ch. 7, WFLD-Ch. 32, WBEZ and WGN-Ch. 9 – argues in a motion filed Tuesday night that “the public has a significant interest in knowing about allegations of government wrongdoing.” That interest outweighs the potential for disclosure of inside information, the organizations claim in their court filing.
“Allegations of workplace misconduct by a public official are significant in any context,” the petition states. “In the context where many public figures have been ousted from their leadership roles due to statements or behavior deemed insensitive or inappropriate, the public has an interest in the impact of the statements that the complaint attributes to the mayor.”
Tribune editor Mitch Pugh said in a statement that “we find it incomprehensible that anyone would argue that this matter should be conducted in secrecy given that it involves the words and actions of public officials.”
“The coalition of media organizations that have come together to table this motion should be a clear signal of what is at stake,” Pugh said. “We are thrilled to see this distinguished group of media companies uniting in defense of the public’s right to know.”
Media organizations also argue that the public has a vested interest in the debate over monument removal, which has become a major local and national issue, as well as public safety, which Lightfoot allegedly discussed.
“Weighing this sweeping assertion of privilege against the broad and significant public interest in this matter, the scales weigh heavily in favor of disclosure here,” the news organizations said in the petition.
A Park District spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Smyrniotis’ attorney declined to comment.
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Lightfoot said she ordered the Columbus monuments removed after activists tried to forcibly remove a larger statue of Columbus in Grant Park, leading to violent clashes between police and protesters. Shortly after, the city tore down the statues in Grant Park and Little Italy, then removed a lesser-known statue from Chicago’s Southside neighborhood.
The removal of the Little Italy Columbus statue prompted attorneys for the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans to file a lawsuit, claiming the statue’s removal violated a 1973 agreement. The libel lawsuit alleges the Park District and the Italian-American organization had reached an agreement last year that would have allowed the statue to be displayed during the group’s annual Columbus Day parade and were negotiating its permanent removal.
When Lightfoot found out, according to the lawsuit, she threatened to revoke the permit for the parade and ordered Park District officials — including Smyrniotis, then the Park District’s assistant general attorney and who had worked on the settlement – to attend a Zoom meeting.
At last year’s meeting, Smyrniotis alleges, Lightfoot “continued to berate and defame” the lawyers and asked them, “Where did you go to law school?” Did you even go to law school? Do you even have a law degree? »
Lightfoot told them they had to submit their pleadings to a city attorney for approval and were told “not to do anything with this statue without my approval.”
“Get that f——statue before noon tomorrow or I’ll have you fired,” Lightfoot said, according to the complaint.
“You’re making some kind of secret deal with the Italians. … You’re over there stroking your d—- above the Columbus statue, I’m trying to stop the Chicago cops from getting get shot and you try to get them shot,” Lightfoot said, according to the complaint. “My d— is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest d— in Chicago. “
Lightfoot dismissed the allegations in the defamation lawsuit as “completely baseless” and called his allegations “deeply offensive and ridiculous”.
Smyrniotis alleges that the comments defamed him by implying that he lacked the ability to perform his job duties. He resigned from the Park District in February, according to the lawsuit.