Water Management employees file federal lawsuit

CHICAGO 06/29/2017, 12:02pm A bronze plaque hangs outside of Chicago’s City Hall
A group of employees have filed a class-action lawsuit over workplace conditions at the city’s Department of Water Management.
Fran Spielman

The pre-emptive strike didn’t work.

On Thursday, four current and two former Water Management employees filed a federal lawsuit against the city and the department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals.

The lawsuit accuses the city and top Water Management officials of “deliberate and unlawful policies, patterns and employment practices to create and proliferate a hostile and abusive work environment based on race that includes violence, intimidation, retaliation, constructive discharge against the plaintiffs and the class of similarly situated former and current” employees.

It seeks “unpaid wages, liquidated damages, attorneys fees and declaratory and injunctive relief.”

Named plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit were identified as: current employees Derrick Edmond, Katherin Ealy, Craig Robinson, Eddie Cooper Jr. and Robert T. Laws Jr.; and former employees Vicki Hill and Adebola Fegbemi.

All six are African-American, and according to the lawsuit, all “have been subject to the ongoing and continuing violations of a hostile work environment and/or deliberate acts of discrimination during their employment based on their race.”

Indeed, the suit claims the on-the-job actions against the plaintiffs “weave a tapestry of hostility that dominates every aspect” of their job.

That tapestry includes getting less-desirable shifts and work assignments and being denied promotions, transfers, overtime and training opportunities.

Black women were routinely referred to as “bitches and whores,” the suit contends. Those who dared to complain about the discriminatory treatment of African-Americans were also punished with “unfair, arbitrary and capricious discipline, plaintiffs claim.

And in spite of a shake-up touched off by the offensive emails that has already swept out five high-level managers, the city has “done nothing to remedy” the toxic environment, the suit contends.

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

At his confirmation hearing earlier this week, newly-appointed Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner assured sympathetic aldermen that he would “change the culture” in a department with a history of intolerance and scandal.

Conner is named as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. So are: former Commissioner Barrett Murphy; former Ald. John Pope (10th), who is now a deputy commissioner in the Department of Water Management and three other high-ranging department officials.

Last month, a housecleaning in the Department of Water Management at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals swept out Murphy, managing deputy William Bresnahan and district superintendent Paul Hansen.

Sources said Murphy — whose wife is a close friend of Emanuel’s wife, Amy Rule — was held responsible for the chain of racist and sexist emails sent by an underling whom the commissioner failed to discipline, even though Murphy was among those receiving the emails.

The Chicago Sun-Times was the first to report that Inspector General Joe Ferguson uncovered the racist, sexist and homo-phobic emails circulating in the Department of Water Management while investigating allegations that Hansen had used his city email account to sell guns.

Murphy’s ouster was a stunner, even in a city department with a history of corruption that’s notorious for its ugly, hate-filled culture.

That’s because it came at the risk of losing two close friends.

Lockwood once chaired a political fundraising committee for the mayor. She’s an Emanuel appointee to the Chicago Public Library board who helped organize the 2012 NATO Summit for the mayor and had a one-year, $160,000 consulting contract with the tourism agency known as Choose Chicago.

Last week, two more high-level supervisors were placed on administrative leave pending termination proceedings.

Thomas J. Durkin, a $106,599-a-year general foreman of plumbers, has been placed on administrative leave without pay while Water Management Commissioner Randy Conner decides whether to follow Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s recommendation that Durkin be fired. Conner who is African-American, has been given carte blanche in a department with an ugly history of corruption and intolerance.

Sources said Durkin was accused of “sending and receiving” the same kinds of racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamaphobic emails that have already triggered the ouster of three other Water Management bosses.

John J. Lee Jr., the $128,088-a-year superintendent of the Water Management’s south district, has also been placed on administrative leave tied to the email scandal.

Durkin and Lee have since resigned.