Racist emails scandal moves beyond Chicago as Illinois opens investigation into state employee’s role

State officials are investigating a longtime employee whose personal email address is a source of racist, sexist and anti-gay emails at the center of the Chicago water department’s burgeoning scandal, including a fake “Chicago Safari” tour making light of the shootings of children in black and Hispanic neighborhoods

The state began a review into Frank Capuzi — an investigator with the Workers’ Compensation Commission and son of a former Republican state lawmaker — following Tribune inquiries into offensive emails forwarded from his address to a water department boss and others.

The state’s actions mark the first time the email scandal has created fresh headaches for another government body.

“The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission is currently investigating the highly offensive and inexcusable email messages from one of its employees,” said commission spokesman Ben Noble. “After a complete and thorough administrative review, the commission will determine what actions may be appropriate.”

Capuzi hung up on a reporter and did not respond to follow-up emails sent to his work and personal addresses. He has worked for the state since 1975 and makes more than $114,000 per year.

Capuzi, 62, was a longtime GOP committeeman on the West Side, having won the 26th Ward post as recently as 2008 and the 27th Ward at least as far back as the early 1980s, according to records from the Chicago Board of Elections.

The “Chicago Safari” email was among at least four of the most offensive ones that circulated among water department bosses that came from Capuzi’s personal address.

The city redacted the address in the messages released via open records requests. The Tribune through interviews and sources, confirmed it was Capuzi’s personal AOL address. It is the same email address Capuzi listed in the past as a contact for his political work.

Even though Capuzi didn’t use his government email address, Chad Fornoff, executive director of the state Executive Ethics Commission, said that this type of matter should be referred to the executive inspector general for investigation into whether any violations of state law, rules or policies have occurred, including conduct unbecoming a state employee.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration’s code of personal conduct states, in part, that employees should conduct themselves “with integrity and in a manner that reflects favorably upon the state.” That code, a union bargaining agreement and the state ethics law are all part of the review, the commission said.

The Rauner administration confirmed that the Workers’ Compensation Commission had launched an investigation. The commission is a quasi-independent body with members appointed by the governor and currently has six Republicans and four Democrats. “The administration was not previously aware of these emails, and the language used is inappropriate and unacceptable,” said Rauner’s spokeswoman Laurel Patrick.

The revelation of how the offensive messages found their way into the water department comes amid the city inspector general’s ongoing investigation into the sharing of racist, sexist and anti-gay emails among city water workers and their bosses.

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s findings have led to five high-level water department bosses being ousted, including Commissioner Barrett Murphy; his deputy, William Bresnahan; and Paul Hansen, a district superintendent and the son of former Democratic Ald. Bernie Hansen (44th). The Tribune reported earlier this week that a private contract employee was caught up in the scandal and has been blocked from working on city projects.

The Tribune, under a public records request, had obtained nearly 1,300 emails from the water department, including several emails forwarded from Capuzi to Hansen.

The Tribune found that at least four offensive emails shared with Hansen and others came from Capuzi’s address. The email threads include the names as “Frank Capuzi,” “Frank” and “F. Capuzi.”

A July 2013 email with the subject line “Chicago Safari Tickets” states that if “you didn’t book a Chicago safari adventure,” for the Independence Day weekend, “you missed” the shootings of a 5-year-old boy and two others in West Pullman; the shooting of a 7-year-old boy in Chatham; and the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old boy in Humboldt Park.

“We guarantee that you will see at least one kill and five crime scenes per three day tour. You’ll also see lots and lots of animals in their natural habitat. Call and book your Chicago Safari today,” the email reads. An image shows four white people in safari gear taking pictures of several black people trying to break into a car.

The emails states that safari guests will stay in a hotel with triple deadbolt locks and window bars, but the safari guides cannot “guarantee Bell Hops won’t run off with your luggage.” The safari promises the rooms will be “99% free of drug needles and crack pipes.”

The Tribune on Friday obtained the Chicago safari email, uncovered as part of the inspector general’s investigation, through a public records request.

Another titled “Watermelon Protection” was sent to Hansen in July 2014 and included an image that depicted a scarecrow, dressed in a white KKK robe and pointed hood, amid a watermelon patch.

Hansen, in turn, forwarded the email to Murphy. “I don’t understand,” Hansen wrote in the email to Murphy.

There is a March 2014 email received by “F Capuzi” then forwarded by “Frank” to Hansen with the subject line “The World’s Shortest Essay — Gotta Love the Texas School Systems.”

The email contained a joke that spares few in its offensiveness. It refers to an essay contest held for Texas teens that had to include elements of religion, royalty, racism, disability and homosexuality. The “winning” essay read: “My God,” cried the Queen, “That one-legged nigger is a queer.”

In turn, Hansen forwarded the email to Bresnahan and two other water department bosses.

Paul Hansen was a supervisor in the water department who allegedly used his city email to negotiate firearms deals. (July 18, 2017)
An April 2017 email forwarded from Capuzi’s address announces that “Today is Heterosexual Male Pride Day!” It makes that declaration after showing a series of photographs of steaks grilling, a row of beer taps and a naked woman.

The body of the email states: “To all of my friends who are tired of taking a BACK SEAT to gays, lesbians, homosexuals, trans genders, women soldiers, bra burners, female boy scouts, women libbers, tree huggers, and eco-commie-environ-freaks, the looney left, Greens, social justice warriors and worse of all — those fucking Democrats!”

Hansen could not be reached for comment. Capuzi’s boss, Robert Ruiz, said he did not know about the emails and declined to comment further.

Paul Finamore, a Chicago area businessman and longtime friend of Capuzi, was listed as receiving some of the emails and said he was appalled at the content when shown the watermelon protection and the shortest essay emails.

“Oh, my God,” Finamore said after he reviewed the emails at the Tribune’s request. “I don’t remember seeing anything of this, to tell you the truth.”

Finamore, the chief executive officer of Hairline Creations Inc., said Capuzi was a groomsman for his 1989 wedding party and that the two had hunted together.

“This man is a racist,” Finamore said. “You’ve got to know this guy. He’s a good, good guy.”

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Paul Hansen 7208 West Olive Rooting out more City Hall racists: Taxpayers funded this orgy of prejudice

It started with a complaint that a Chicago water department superintendent was using a city email address to conduct private firearms transactions. The inspector general’s investigation turned up a lot more. Besides negotiating to buy or sell four guns and five cars, Paul Hansen traded racist emails with other supervisors and visited websites not related to his job — some containing sexually explicit materials — on “thousands of occasions” in a four-month period.

On city email, on a city computer, on city time.

He also forwarded a confidential workplace violence complaint filed by a subordinate to the employee accused in the complaint, according to IG Joseph Ferguson’s report.

The top bosses who were looped in on some of those emails didn’t put a stop to them. Sometimes they even joined in. Photos of naked women, jokes about fucking watermelon, a picture of an African-American baby in a bucket described as a swimming pool, a message with the subject line “U Know U Be In Da Hood” — it was all just another day at the office at the Department of Water Management.
A trove of emails obtained earlier by the Tribune contained more of the same: a Confederate flag, a reference to “negro midgets,” a crude joke about an employee needing “an inflatable doughnut on the chair” after a Gay Pride weekend. It’s the kind of stuff you’d expect from fourth-grade boys with pigs for parents. And it was all happening on your dime, taxpayers.

Here’s the other outrage: Nobody is surprised. The water department is larded with workers that somebody sent. In 2006, the department was the focus of a federal corruption trial that showed how then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration rewarded campaign workers with jobs, promotions and overtime. Daley’s patronage chief, Robert Sorich, maintained the secret “clout list,” rigged interviews and falsified documents to grease the hires.

In one of the emails, Hansen, the son of ex-44th Ward Ald. Bernie Hansen, bragged about his ability to “swing elections.”

“The water department has been staffed at its highest levels by persons whose social or political connections were their chief or only qualification for the job,” Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, chairman of the City Council’s black caucus, said this week. “The emails have exposed that these individuals hold black Chicagoans in contempt.”

The good news is that Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t having it. He’s made a clean sweep of top management, including Water Commissioner Barrett Murphy, a personal friend.

Hansen and Thomas Durkin, general foreman of plumbers, were told to quit or be fired. Both quit. (The IG’s report didn’t name them, but Tribune reporters identified them through City Hall sources.) Others should follow. Managers and supervisors will undergo training about workplace discrimination, and an outside firm is studying how to address and prevent such conduct citywide.

That’s all good. If this is how the bosses behave, then bigots at all levels are emboldened, and workers who are offended or victimized feel they have no recourse. The city needs to make sure its employees feel safe — and obligated — to report such behavior. That means providing the mechanisms and the training to make it happen.

Changing the culture also means aggressively rooting out the bad actors, and we suspect there are many more. Yet the IG’s report notes that its access to emails is limited by city law department protocols. The IG “must submit requests for emails using limiting search terms and date ranges” and must reduce its request if it gets too many hits, the report says.

As journalists, we’re familiar with such roadblocks; they’re meant to keep us from reporting things that would embarrass public officials. What purpose could they serve in this case? The law department ought to remove those barriers and let the investigation go as far and as fast as it can.

In a federal lawsuit filed last month, a group of African-American water department employees say they were denied promotions, subjected to racial slurs and sexually harassed because of their race, and that their bosses “have done nothing” about it.

The city should pull out all the stops to address those complaints. Too many people at the water department got their jobs for the wrong reasons and never had to worry about losing them. They ought to be nervous now.