CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration hasn’t offered many details about the negotiations that led to a speedy $5 million settlement with the family of Laquan McDonald, the teenager whose shooting death at the hands of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was caught on video.
City attorney Steve Patton — Emanuel’s point man on the deal that included a confidentiality clause requiring Laquan's family lawyers to keep the now-infamous dashcam video private — declined to be interviewed by DNAinfo Chicago.
But a motion filed in the Cook County Circuit Court probate division reviewed by DNAinfo Chicago does shed light on events that led to the settlement — a deal Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said, in a radio interview with WGN Radio on Friday, happened so quickly “people have a right to question why."
In the motion to approve the “wrongful death or cause for action” settlement filed June 18, attorneys for Laquan's family, Jeffery Neslund and Michael Robbins, stated they conducted a five-month investigation that included interviewing shooting witnesses, meeting with and cooperating with investigators and finding and watching surveillance videos, including the police dashcam video of the shooting.
And after the lawyers obtained a copy of the dashcam video — “which was described, but not shown to family members” — they discussed litigation options with Laquan’s family, who decided to ask if city lawyers were “willing to negotiate a resolution of the Estate claims, prior to initiating litigation,” according to court papers.
The settlement talks began “in early March 2015” when Laquan family lawyers “approached the City” offering an opportunity to negotiate “to resolve all potential claims which could be asserted by the Estate, prior to initiating litigation,” which the city “indicated a willingness” to do, according to court documents.
On Tuesday, when Emanuel was asked why the city approved a $5 million payout to Laquan’s family — complete with a confidentiality agreement that kept video of the teen's death secret — before a wrongful death lawsuit was filed, Chicago’s mayor made it clear that settlement talks were initiated by lawyers representing the slain teenager’s mother and sister.
Emanuel told reporters Laquan's family attorneys first made contact with city lawyers on Feb. 27.
To add a little perspective, that was three days after Emanuel failed to win re-election outright, forcing him into a runoff against Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
That's a detail that has added fuel to political conspiracy theories of a City Hall-orchestrated cover-up to keep the video under wraps and protect Emanuel from criticism in the weeks before the showdown election.
Last week, protesters and politicians, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, have called for the feds to take a closer look at how Laquan's shooting death was handled, and to examine corruption within the Chicago Police Department. Indeed, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a sweeping probe of the Chicago Police Department Monday morning.
And plenty of Emanuel’s critics — including members of the Council's black caucus — want to know if the rushed settlement deal amounted to a “cover-up” aimed at keeping the dashcam video out of public eye during the mayoral runoff election.
When asked to provide evidence Laquan's family attorneys contacted the city on Feb. 27, a city spokesman said a Law Department attorney received the first phone call from Laquan's family attorneys on the last Friday in February. The spokesman, however, was unable to provide documentation of that telephone conversation.
Robbins, reached at his home Friday afternoon, declined to discuss the timeline of when city officials were contacted regarding possible settlement talks.
It wasn't until March 6 that Neslund and Robbins sent city attorneys a “detailed and comprehensive summary” of their investigation into Laquan’s slaying, according to court papers.
But before settlement talks began, “the City and attorneys for the Estate agreed upon a protocol for a complete and through [sic] exchange of information … with respect to all relevant information pertaining to potential causes of action, as well as information pertaining to potential damages,” court papers show.
Robbins declined to give details about the information exchange protocol that was a precursor to the negotiations.
A city spokesman also would not provide details about the pre-settlement protocol mentioned in the probate court filing, or if it aimed to replace rules — including protective orders keeping certain discovery evidence sealed — that could be requested by either side if settlement negotiations would have taken place as part of a lawsuit.
The settlement negotiations included just two face-to-face meetings between opposing lawyers on March 16 and March 24, when a tentative agreement pending Council approval was struck, the spokesman said.
The probate court motion filed on behalf of Laquan’s estate states that following the “exchange of information and after multiple negotiation sessions … the City of Chicago offered the sum of $5 million to settle all claims that could have been brought.”
An independent administrator representing Laquan’s mother and sister accepted the deal, which was described as “fair, reasonable and just” by Robbins and Neslund, who collected about 36 percent of the cash payout — more than $1.8 million — for legal fees, court records show.
The remainder of the settlement payout was split between Laquan’s mother, Tina Harris, and the slain teen’s sister, who at the time of the court filing was a ward of the state.
A judge ruled that Laquan’s father — who was an adult when 15-year-old Harris gave birth to his son and wasn’t involved in his Laquan’s life — was not entitled to receive any portion of the cash payout, according to court papers.
The probate court filing did not include any settlement details or mention confidentiality terms, which Neslund said barred him from making public the dashcam video that he told Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell was a "huge bargaining chip."
On April 14, seven days after Emanuel was re-elected to his second term, Mitchell wrote:
"According to Neslund, the dash-cam video has not been aired because of the fear of violent protests.
‘I agonized over this. I really wanted to let it go viral, but how would that affect the city of Chicago?’ the lawyer asked. ‘Ultimately, the more I thought about it, the more I decided against it. Yes, it was a huge bargaining chip in the negotiations, but I didn’t want that on my conscience.’”
When Patton stood before the Council finance committee on April 13 he offered details that he said explain “why we think this is a settlement that makes sense for the City and taxpayers.”
Before Patton’s testimony at the hearing, some aldermen said they were forewarned by members of the Emanuel administration that the settlement on the agenda included a “horrifying” video of the police shooting and that the city was “getting off easy” with the $5 million settlement, sources told DNAinfo Chicago.
Last week, Ald. Howard Brookins (20th), who voted in favor of the settlement, told CNN that he believes the Council was “misled” by the Emanuel administration to believe the city was not allowed to release the video of Laquan’s shooting death at the hands of a Chicago police officer due to ongoing federal and state criminal investigations.
“I do believe we were misled,” Brookins told CNN. “It is evident now that at the time of the settlement, the tape could have been released. … There was no need for significant delay.”
Only two aldermen questioned Patton about the settlement and video during the finance committee meeting before the measure passed in a unanimous vote.
On April 15, the full Council voted to approve the deal, the same day that Emanuel introduced an ordinance creating a $5.5 million fund to pay “reparations” to victims tortured by officers under the command of convicted former South Side police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
After the meeting, veteran Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman summed up the irony this way, “The timing may or may not have been coincidental. But it was certainly fortunate politically.”
Nearly nine months later, one thing is certain: Every politically fortunate move the Emanuel administration made involving the shooting death of Laquan, whether it was a coincidence or not, is now under the microscope.
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