CHICAGO (CN) - A Chicago alderman used the city Sanitation Department to steal rivals' campaign signs, "warn" merchants who posted them, and even stopped trash pick-up at their homes, two losing candidates claim in court.
Thomas Courtney Jr. and GeVonna Fassett sued the City of Chicago, 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett and two officials with the Streets and Sanitation Department: Linda Delgado and Thomas Byrne, in Federal Court. Delgado is the head of streets and sanitation in the 27th Ward, according to the complaint.
Courtney and Fassett claim Burnett's dirty politics cost them a fair shot at election.
The complaint states: "In the February 2011 City of Chicago Municipal election, Thomas Courtney Jr., and GeVonna Fassett ran in a three-way contested race for City of Chicago 27th Ward Alderman against five time incumbent Walter Burnett. The current alderman was a felon ineligible to run for local office until pardoned by Governor Jim Edgar."
Gov. Jim Edgar pardoned Burnett in 1998 for a felony conviction that occurred when Burnett was 17 years old, the Chicago Tribune reported at the time.
Burnett, now 49, was first elected alderman in 1995. He ran unchallenged then but was challenged for his second term, when the issue arose. Edgar, who had rejected a pardon plea from Burnett in 1994, granted him executive clemency so he could run for re-election.
Burnett served 2 years and 3 months in prison for the armed robbery of a Kankakee savings and loan in 1981, according to the Tribune and the Chicago Reader. He was paroled and then began working for the Cook County Highway Department.
In the recent lawsuit, Burnett's defeated rivals claim: "Burnett, with substantial partisan help from one or more City [of] Chicago officials, was successful in silencing his opponents' efforts to communicate to voters information about the plaintiffs, who were candidates running for the 27th Ward Aldermanic seat. Burnett's Chicago-style politics openly violated the city sign ordinance. In local elections the use of campaign signs is one of the few resources for a candidate to let the voters know who is in the race.
"If the plaintiffs legally placed a sign, it would be removed and disappear in a matter of hours, only to be immediately replaced by a Burnett sign.
"If a merchant on Sedgwick [Street], Washington Boulevard or Halsted [Street] put a plaintiffs' campaign sign in a store window, Burnett's entourage would show up, identify who they were campaigning for, and warn the merchants to remove the sign. Burnett's sign would immediately be displayed. Some of these merchants are still fearful of disclosing their identities and have asked for anonymity."
Courtney and Fassett add: "Burnett is known to exercise considerable control over the hiring approval of 27th Ward job seekers. Delgado's benefactor is Burnett. ...
"Delgado wanted Burnett to win the election and without hesitation used her City of Chicago office and position of authority (police powers) to selectively and maliciously enforce the city sign ordinance against plaintiffs. Delgado has a job at stake. It was open season for Delgado to use her department against the 27th Ward candidates who placed signs at or near Burnett's signs on viaducts, public buildings, elevated platforms, fences around parks, and any possible location to catch the eyes of the voters.
"The opposing candidates raised their voices in a chorus of complaints to Delgado, who simply ignored the complaints and refused to enforce the City ordinance against Burnett. Burnett was allowed to keep his signs and in some instances ... City workers removed the campaign signs of Burnett's opponents leaving Burnett's signs undisturbed. Burnett's continued to affix signs and billboards throughout the ward that made it appear he was the only candidate."
A city ordinance prohibits posting of election signs on public property, subject to a fine of $200-$1,000 per day. The plaintiffs claim Burnett and his co-defendants knew Burnett's campaign violated this law by posting signs "hard wired to public viaducts, traffic signals, and overpasses throughout the ward."
The defendants made it personal, the plaintiffs say: "During the height of the election, plaintiffs' trash was not collected by Delgado's Sanitation Department. The denial of trash collection is another example of the flagrant abuse of power by Delgado and Burnett. This action exposed the candidates and their families to health life safety concerns in a City that is known for garbage wars and rat infestations from uncollected garbage."
They add: "Delgado used her official office and the Department of Streets and Sanitation to frustrate and restrict candidate's exercise of free speech. Burnett was permitted to disregard the City sign ordinance to his advantage over his opponents. With Delgado's help, Burnett won the 27th Ward.
"It is likely that Burnett will continue to use his illegal tactics to keep his grip and promote and win elections. Plaintiffs plan to run for alderman again in the 27th Ward, but as conditions exist, if unchecked, any candidate against Burnett lacks an adequate or complete remedy at law to redress the wrongs alleged."
Courtney and Fassett seek an injunction and compensatory damages for violations of due process, equal protection and the First Amendment.
They are represented by Thomas Courtney Sr., of Palos Heights.
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