Emanuel’s commitment to changing Water Management hate-filled culture questioned

02/01/2018, 05:35pm
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was accused Thursday of “talking out of both sides of its mouth” when it comes to changing a hate-filled culture laid bare in racist, sexist and homophobic emails.

Fran Spielman

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration was accused Thursday of “talking out of both sides of its mouth” when it comes to changing a hate-filled culture laid bare in racist, sexist and homophobic emails that triggered a housecleaning in the city’s Department of Water Management.

Attorney Victor Henderson represents six current and former Water Management employees — all African-Americans — who have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Department of Water Management of creating “a hostile and abusive work environment” based on race that includes violence, intimidation and retaliation.

Henderson’s claim that Emanuel is insincere about his commitment to change that hate-filled culture stems from two new taxpayer-funded court filings in the case.

The motions seek to dismiss ousted Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy and fired Managing Deputy William Bresnahan as named defendants in the case on grounds that neither man did anything wrong.

“The city is talking out of both sides of its mouth. You’ve got the inspector general saying there’s a culture of racial discrimination. You have City Hall firing the commissioner and others. And on the other hand, it’s delay and deny in the courthouse, taking the exact opposite position like none of this ever happened,” Henderson said.

“If they really didn’t do anything, they shouldn’t have been asked to leave. If they did do something, the city should acknowledge it. . . . What the city is doing is having it both ways — one way politically, the other way legally,” he said.

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey stressed that the city “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”

But he said, “Not all allegations made in lawsuits are necessarily meritorious. In this particular instance, there are claims regarding specific employment decisions that do not appear to be supported by the records.”

The motion to dismiss Murphy from the case was filed by former federal prosecutor Vincent Connelly, an attorney at Mayer Brown LLP. In it, Connelly notes that the “hostile work environment claim” against Murphy rests on two emails. The first was written by now-fired Deputy Commissioner Paul Hansen to Murphy in February 2013.

The second email was written by Murphy in August 2015, describing an equation for calculating the circumference of a circle, Connelly wrote.

“There is no allegation in the complaint that Murphy wrote any offensive comments at all. . . . There is no allegation that Murphy wrote anything else, but Hansen responded to this email with offensive comments,” the motion to dismiss states.

“Two offensive emails received and one forwarded in two years is not objectively severe and pervasive conduct by Murphy. Plaintiffs failed to state a claim for hostile work environment against Murphy.”

Connelly noted that in a “single sentence accompanied by a photograph,” the current and former employees alleged they were “subjected to racist images, such as a hangman’s noose in restrooms and Water Department vehicles.” The plaintiffs further claim they were “called names, including the n-word and `you people.’ “

“The complaint contains absolutely no allegation that Murphy, as a supervisor, participated in hanging a noose or in calling the plaintiffs names,” Connelly wrote.

“There is no basis for liability based on direct harassment by Murphy as a supervisor. Nor is there any allegation that Murphy was negligent in remedying harassment by others. Plaintiffs make no allegation that a co-worker hung the noose or that any co-workers called them names,” Connelly wrote. “Plaintiffs do not allege that they reported these incidents or that Murphy ever knew about them. There is no basis for liability against Murphy based on negligence in remedying harassment by co-workers.”

The motion to dismiss Bresnahan from the case was filed by Del Gado Law Group LLC, another firm hired by the city.

Although plaintiffs allege that Bresnahan “received racist emails from Hansen,” the motion states, “There are no allegations that any of the plaintiffs were aware or received these proposed emails.”

Last spring, a housecleaning triggered by the email scandal flushed out Murphy, Bresnahan, Hansen and two other top managers. Murphy’s ouster was a shocker because he and his wife are close friends with Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule.

Emanuel acknowledged then that Murphy “offered his resignation because he knew that we had to hit a re-set button” at the department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals.

Last month, nearly two dozen current and former Water Management employees complained that the same hate-filled culture persists, even after a white commissioner was replaced with an African-American.

Emanuel responded by arguing that it would take Commissioner Randy Conner, who is African-American, a lot longer than six months to change a hate-infested Water Management culture decades in the making. But he categorically denied that nothing has changed.