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EXCLUSIVE: City Hall Held Secret Meeting To Get Story Straight On Laquan

By Mark Konkol | May 26, 2016 6:18am | Updated on May 31, 2016 10:45am
 Rahm Emanuel and John Escalante.
Rahm Emanuel and John Escalante
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DOWNTOWN — “Get your story straight.”

Cops will tell you that phrase is code, part of the “Thin Blue Line” code of silence in the Police Department, that signals an expectation to fall in line with an agreed-upon narrative of an event regardless of what actually happened.

Apparently, getting your story straight is not a practice unique to the Chicago Police Department.

A few days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Dec. 9 publicly acknowledged that a code of silence exists within the Police Department, his top aides called a secret meeting at City Hall.

The goal: To make sure everybody — top police brass, Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot and members of the Independent Police Review Authority, the independent agency charged with investigating police misconduct — had their story straight, so to speak, before being grilled by aldermen at a City Council joint hearing of Human Relations and Public safety committees in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting, DNAinfo Chicago has learned.

Mark Konkol on the Emanuel administration's efforts to 'control the message.'

In a Dec. 13 email, top Emanuel aide Janey Rountree told former acting police Supt. John Escalante, members of the police command staff and others to cancel their own “prep session” for the joint hearing and instead attend a roundtable meeting at City Hall.

“I think it will be really important for CPD to be in the same prep session as IPRA and the Police Board President so everyone has the same information,” Rountree wrote in the email obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

“I know this conflicts with an internal CPD prep session, so I hope it’s not too much trouble to reschedule yours,” she wrote.

Rountree’s email also laid out a tentative plan for how members of the Police Department would address questions from aldermen at the hearing. The email, sent weeks before Emanuel removed Escalante as temporary top cop, did not mention Escalante by name.

“Right now, the plan is for Chief [Eugene] Williams and Chief [Eddie L.] Welch to speak for CPD,” according to the email, which also includes a list of questions police brass should be prepared to answer.

“You should review these and decide who else you’ll need in the room, particularly the General Counsel and maybe [Deputy Chief of Support Services] Jonathan Lewin. I think we have some flexibility as to who is testifying,” Rountree wrote.

On Dec. 15, Emanuel’s press secretary Adam Collins followed up with Escalante by emailing him a few things “that came up in our prep yesterday” that included expected questions and answers that were written in first-person and read more like a script than a suggestion.

If Escalante were to be asked “Is there a code of silence in CPD?” Collins offered the top cop exact lines he should say that did not answer the question:

“ – I’ve been part of CPD for more than 29 years, and I’ve been honored to serve with some of the finest men and women I know. I’m sure each of you could share incredible stories about officers in your wards and in your communities who have dedicated themselves to making our city a better place to live.
-    But we also need to be honest that in an organization of our size there will be some who break the rules, and unfortunately some who break the law.
-    When that happens, those people need to be held accountable.
-    And if and when anyone tries to hide information from investigators — they need to be held accountable.
-    We have those rules on the books. It’s called Rule 14.
-    And we need to uphold it.”

How should Escalante answer if he was asked when Mayor Emanuel found out about the Laquan McDonald shooting?

“A: I have no idea.” Collins wrote in the email.

What if Escalante were to be asked, “Who briefs the Mayor on police-involved shootings?”

Collins wrote: “A: We haven’t had one since I became Superintendent and I couldn’t speak to what Superintendent McCarthy may have done around these instances.”

Escalante, who now serves as the Police Department’s second in command, did not testify before the joint committee until "supper time," eight hours after it began, when just 12 aldermen were present, WBEZ's Natalie Moore reported at that time.

At the hearing, Escalante read from a written copy of remarks that started, "Good morning," the radio station reported.

Asked about the City Hall script for the hearing, Escalante said, "It’s not uncommon for the Police Department — similar to other city department and agencies — to work with the Mayor’s Office on city announcements and events. As they are hired to do, communications staff regularly provide city officials — including police leadership — with recommendations and pointers on a wide range of topics."

Collins, who recently was promoted as Emanuel’s top spokesman, said the emails show "basic routine interaction" between the Mayor's Office and city agencies.

"Nothing in here questions the independence of IPRA or the Police Board in any shape or form. Neither our office nor CPD is involved in IPRA's independent investigative work. All this shows is the basic routine interaction between mayoral liaisons and city agencies. It is common for the Mayor's Office ... to hold prep meetings for agency heads before scheduled committee hearings to ensure that those expected to testify are prepared to answer any and all questions that may be asked by aldermen during the hearing," Collins said. 

"You’d expect nothing less because this type of routine preparation ensures that those testifying are able to provide the aldermen and the public with full and complete information."

City Council got "spun"

Even after the City Hall prep session and follow-up Q&A scripts, the City Council joint hearing on Dec. 15 turned into a marathon session that the Tribune described as a display of “political posturing” and Ald. Danny Solis (25th) called “a waste of time.”

Then interim Police Supt. John Escalante, center, and at the Chicago Corporation Counsel Steve Patton, standing, at the City Council hearing. (Getty Images)

When Solis on Wednesday learned of the City Hall “prep session” before the joint hearing, the veteran alderman said he remains frustrated by the lack of action being taken to fix the city’s “problem” with the police code of silence and the efforts taken to keep aldermen from getting specifics about the state of the Police Department.

“I think we were definitely spun during that hearing in December. I hope that is still not happening now,” Solis said.

“We have a problem. The cat is out of the bag. We have to figure out how to deal with it. We have got to change at our level. The mayor has responsibility and the City Council has responsibility and the police union has a responsibility to come up with solutions,” said Solis.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he wouldn’t have been surprised by the Emanuel administration's “prep session” if it was just for the Police Department.

After all, "They typically hand out talking points to aldermen telling them what to ask. You can tell because you see some [aldermen] reading something they haven't seen before that's written in language that's not how they usually speak," he said.

But the inclusion of IPRA members and the Police Board boss — who were described in Rountree’s email as part of “all people testifying for the city” — in a City Hall roundtable orchestrated by the Emanuel administration doesn’t seem right to the North Side ward boss.

“I think around the city people see the word ‘independent’ in an agency’s name and they think it’s some other entity; not one that’s run by a mayoral appointee getting directives directly from [Emanuel’s} fifth floor office,” Waguespack said.

“I’m not surprised they tried to get everyone lined up to answer the same way, especially with the situation so heated. You can understand when it’s a matter of legal review on a controversial situation, but this goes way beyond that. It’s political maneuvering and manipulation. That’s [Emanuel’s] M.O. He choreographs everything. When they do that instead of letting people answer honestly they just dig the hole deeper.”

"Was there a cover-up?"

Ald. John Arena (45th) said the emails obtained by DNAinfo Chicago show that the Emanuel administration, while being very careful with its messaging related to the Laquan McDonald shooting, "still hasn't leveled with us about what they knew and when they knew it about Laquan. We're still sitting here scratching our heads when it comes to that question."

"Was there a cover-up here? That still needs to be answered. What they knew and how much they knew are the most important questions hanging out there. For me, reading [the emails] adds to that fundamental question that needs to be answered at some point."

The City Hall emails obtained by DNAinfo Chicago shed additional light on how much control the Emanuel administration wields on the day-to-day operations of the Police Department, currently the subject of a U.S. Justice Department probe.

The Justice Department investigation, however, has been limited to the policies and practices of the Police Department and, as far as anyone knows, has not been expanded to include City Hall.

Not yet, anyway.

In December, I laid out why the feds should do just that, explaining that Chicago’s mayor “historically sits atop an elaborate pyramid of power designed by the Democratic Machine that cynics will tell you was constructed to preserve a publicly accepted level of crookedness locals refer to, sometimes lovingly, as 'The Chicago Way.'”

RELATED: Justice Department Made A Wrong Turn: City Hall, Not CPD, Controls Police

An outsider might think Chicago’s top cop runs the Police Department, but it’s Chicago’s mayor who is the real boss. The mayor hires the police superintendent, sets the police budget and, as former police Supt. Garry McCarthy will tell you, calls almost every day for briefings on department doings.

Emanuel’s Corporation Counsel Steve Patton, City Hall's top lawyer, is the guy who negotiates the police union contract that includes provisions that for generations have helped crooked cops escape punishment for misconduct.

And when an officer gets accused of misconduct, Patton is the guy who defends officers in court, sometimes by settling civil lawsuits that have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Then there’s the City Hall spin machine that Collins' email appears to show at least attempts to control almost every word that comes out the top cop's mouth.

Arena stopped short of calling on the feds to take their investigation to City Hall. Instead, the Northwest Side alderman and staunch mayoral critic said he trusts the Justice Department will do what's right. 

"The fact that the Department of Justice is investigating is important. That's not an investigation that's easy to subvert. If the Justice Department has a sense that there's more to this they are going to, on their own volition, expand their investigation," he said. "They need to do their work and follow the leads where they go."

Arena clarified his stand by pointing to the words the City Hall Spin Machine had scripted for Escalante in December.

"It's like how they coached Escalante on how to answer about whether there's a code of silence in the Police Department: If someone breaks the rules they need to be held accountable. If the Department of Justice finds that their investigation leads to the administration, they will track down and accordingly hold people accountable," Arena said.

"They won't be held back by any local politics or federal politics and follow the scent where it takes them. When that happens, we'll get the answers."

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