CHICAGO — Although Ald. John Arena (45th) has been in office for more than two years, a dispute over the 2011 election is far from over.
A state appeals court panel last week revived a defamation lawsuit filed by Arena's 2011 opponent, Chicago police Lt. John Garrido. The suit also names four other groups. Garrido lost to Arena by 30 votes in a runoff.
In seven mailings and one television advertisement, Arena and three unions that supported him claimed Garrido took money from a firm involved in the much-maligned 2009 parking meter privatization deal and would collect two municipal pensions if elected.
Garrido's lawsuit, filed 10 days after the final votes were counted, claimed those "outright lies" damaged his reputation and hurt his career with the police department and as a lawyer.
However, Garrido's suit was dismissed by Cook County Associate Judge Michael R. Panter under the 2007 Citizen Participation Act, which was designed to prevent people from being sued for what they say during the political process while exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
That ruling was reversed by a three-judge panel of the First District Appellate Court, citing a January decision by the Illinois Supreme Court that held that the law prevented only "meritless or retaliatory" suits aimed at stopping people from speaking out from moving forward.
Garrido's claims of defamation are not meritless because "the record provides no support for defendants’ contention that the statements about the parking-meter deal are actually true," Justice Maureen E. Connors wrote in the 17-page opinion for the three-judge panel.
Garrido received two $500 contributions from Juan Gaytan, the owner of Monterrey Security, which was hired as a subcontractor to the company responsible for the reviled parking-meter deal.
"There is no evidence that plaintiff received campaign contributions from either LAZ Parking, which is the company responsible for the privatization deal, nor any evidence that he personally profited from the deal," Connors wrote.
In addition, Connors wrote the ads' statements about Garrido's pensions were also not true.
"While plaintiff could theoretically receive both an aldermanic pension as well as his police pension at some point in the future, he would not even be eligible for an aldermanic pension until he had served as alderman for 10 years, an event that is not only speculative but that would be contingent on plaintiff winning at least two additional four-year terms as alderman," Connors wrote. "This is a far cry from the mailers’ assertion."
The appeals court ruling was not a surprise, based on the Supreme Court ruling, said David T. Arena, an attorney with the Park Ridge-based law firm of DiMonte & Lizak LLC, who is representing the alderman, his brother.
There are no plans to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision, David Arena said.
Michelle M. Truesdale, an attorney with the Chicago-based law firm of Lawrence Wolf Levin, said Garrido was pleased with the decision.
If the lawsuit's dismissal on the basis of the Citizen Participation Act had been upheld, Garrido would have been liable for a portion of the defendants' legal fees, which were estimated at $160,000, Truesdale said.
The trial court judge must now weigh the defendants' other arguments in their effort to have the lawsuit dismissed.
David Arena said he planned to argue that Garrido must prove that John Arena and the other defendants knew the claims about Garrido's pensions and his involvement parking meter-deal were false, or should have know they were false, and made them anyway. In addition, Garrido should be required to show he suffered monetary damages, David Arena added.
Because the advertisements were based on reports from two news organizations, John Arena believed them to be true, David Arena said.
No date has been set for the lawsuit, which also names are Citizens to Elect John Arena, the Chicago Federation of Labor, the Service Employees International Union and Unite Here Local 1, to return to court.
The revived lawsuit may become an issue in the 2015 aldermanic election.
Garrido said he has not decided whether to challenge Arena. However, his campaign website is still online, and features a letter from the former candidate that thanks his supporters for their hard work and concludes: "Who knows, maybe even a rematch in four years."