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Multiple Black aldermen defend using city funds to pay ex-Park District official

Photo caption: (top left clockwise) Alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th), Aldermen Michelle Harris (8th), David Moore (17th) and Jason Ervin (28th)

Three of four Black aldermen are defending their offices after the Chicago Tribune reported they paid over $48,000 from their taxpayer expense accounts to former Chicago Park District Chief Program Officer Alonzo Williams, who was forced to resign and placed on the do-not-rehire list for his involvement in the lifeguard sexual abuse scandal.

The report said that since 2021, former Alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th), Aldermen Michelle Harris (8th), David Moore (17th) and Jason Ervin (28th) have been paying Williams’ consulting firm, 8028 Consultants LLC, which was formed two months after Williams left the Park District, according to the report.

Sawyer, Harris and Ervin defended the payments, but Moore declined to comment in the Tribune story.

In 2021, a 40-page independent report from the law firm of Arnold & Porter repeatedly cited Williams as among several Park District executives who mishandled allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in the lifeguard program.

The report said Williams violated the Park District’s sexual harassment and workplace violence policies by failing to report allegations by a former Oak Street Beach female lifeguard to the Park District’s human resources department.

The same report concluded that Chicago Park District CEO and General Superintendent Mike Kelly knew about the explosive allegations in 2019, far longer than previously revealed.

The report said Kelly asked Williams and Assistant Director of Recreation Eric Fischer to look into the complaints. The report found no evidence that Williams or Fischer investigated the allegations.

Kelly resigned from his $230,000-a-year job the same day Mayor Lori Lightfoot called for his termination. Lightfoot appointed Rosa Escareño, Chicago’s former commissioner of the department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to replace Kelly.

Williams was paid $195,000 a year as the Park District’s chief program officer, according to the Tribune report. Williams resigned the same day the report was released in November 2021. Fischer also resigned.

According to the Tribune, the Park District’s Human Resources Department marked Williams’ resignation with a “DO NOT REHIRE” designation in the remarks section.

A Park District spokesperson in the report said the designation “may impact employment with the city, as a designation of ineligible for rehire by any employer will be taken into consideration when making a hiring decision.”

The report didn’t say how much Moore and three Black aldermen each paid Williams.

In a statement to the Tribune, Williams criticized the Park District for releasing information about his employment and resignation and said he had “absolutely no knowledge” of being on the do-not-hire list.

While Moore declined to comment to the Tribune, Sawyer, Harris and Ervin defended paying Williams with taxpayer expense accounts that give Chicago’s 50 aldermen $122,000 annually to spend on almost anything they want with little oversight, according to the report.

The same day the report was released in November 2021, Williams resigned at the request of Park District CEO Rosa Escareño. But two months later, records show, Williams launched 8028 Consultants LLC, and just two months after that he received his first payment from Moore. Records show Williams was briefly employed in Moore’s ward office before he switched to being an independent contractor.

By April 2022, Sawyer, Harris and Ervin reportedly began paying Williams’ firm on a monthly basis. According to the Tribune, which obtained invoices and emails through a Freedom of Information Act, Williams advised the aldermen “in all park-related matters” and created documents for grant applicants.

Harris said Williams spent “significant” time helping community organizations apply for grants through Lightfoot’s micro grant program in 2022, which gave every alderman’s office $100,000 to spend on the ward.

Ervin said Williams’ knowledge of “the ins and outs of the Park District” made him a valuable addition. Ervin said Williams helped the 28th Ward receive around $20 million from the District for capital improvements.

Sawyer said he’s known Williams for “over 20 years” and suggested Williams had been unfairly held responsible for his role in the Park District’s mishandling of allegations in the lifeguard program.

Sawyer’s successor, newly elected Alderman William Hall, told the Tribune his office will not work with Williams and that he’s evaluating all vendors Sawyer worked with before continuing to pay them.

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