The Northcenter Chamber of Commerce and its executive director, Garrett FitzGerald, have filed two seperate lawsuits this month – one against former Chamber president Robert Engel and one against former 47th Ward Aldermanic candidate Tom O’Donnell – charging defamation and tortious interference.
The two suits are not connected: the one against Engel has been filed by the Chamber while the suit against O’Donnell has been filed by FitzGerald and Tim Gibbons. Yet both accuse fellow neighbors of attempting to tear down FitzGerald’s and the neighborhood business organization’s reputations. As Gibbons is a commander in the Chicago Fire Department and the owner of Tim’s Snowplowing, these are no small matters for two men who work in the insular world of city contracts and neighborhood businesses. Copies of both lawsuits are attached at the bottom of this article.
Because the lawsuits are between neighbors who have known and worked with each other for decades, they are a messy business involving tangled interpersonal relationships.
The Chamber’s suit against Engel alleges that the former president has systematically attempted to sully its reputation in an effort to strip the Chamber of the management contract for the lucrative Special Services Area #38 as well as to halt the creation of a new non-profit organization, the Northwest Community Corporation, which would create and manage new special service areas in Chicago. In particular, the suit references a press release and op-ed Engel provided this publication in February as part of his attack on the Northcenter Chamber.
When contacted, Engel declined to comment for this article.
In the lawsuit filed by FitzGerald and Gibbons, the pair charge that O’Donnell authored and mailed four anonymous letters to city and state officials, as well as local politicians, in an effort to keep FitzGerald from an appointment to the Illinois Civil Service Commission, and to prevent Gibbons from obtaining further promotions in the Fire Department, as well as strip his company’s snowplowing contracts from the many special service areas with which he does business.
Center Square Journal did not receive the anonymous letters, but has confirmed they were distributed to numerous local officials. This publication has made it a policy not to print anonymous, unconfirmed communications.
Because his case is pending, FitzGerald would not speak on the record, but appointed a spokesman, Andrew Sharp, who said that FitzGerald’s attorney has proof the letters were authored and sent by O’Donnell.
“We do have evidence and it will all come out in the trial. We’re confident we’re going to win at the trial,” said Sharp.
For his part, O’Donnell denied knowledge of the anonymous letters and does not understand why FitzGerald and Gibbons would sue him.
“I don’t know what this is about. It’s beyond the pale to me,” O’Donnell told Center Square Journal.
O’Donnell and FitzGerald were once close allies, as they both campaigned for former Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th) and knocked on doors together to gather votes for their ward organization. After O’Donnell’s aldermanic loss in 2011, FitzGerald remained head of the Northcenter Chamber,
a position to which Schulter named him where he was appointed executive director in 2006.
Under FitzGerald, the Chamber has tripled its membership and increased its revenue 14 times, according to Chamber records provided by FitzGerald. Much of that success depends on a strong relationship with the sitting alderman, now Ameya Pawar. Sources close to the situation suggest that O’Donnell and other Schulter loyalists might be upset with the strong working relationship FitzGerald has developed with Pawar.
In response to the alleged anonymous letters, FitzGerald and Gibbons’ suit demands $50,000 in compensation, but their spokesman, Andrew Sharp pointed to another target. O’Donnell is employed as an “Assistant to Sheriff” with a $115,430 annual salary in the Cook County Sheriff’s department. FitzGerald and Gibbon’s lawsuit implies that the pair are aiming as much for O’Donnell’s county job as financial compensation.
“The end for Tom O’Donnell is very near,” said Sharp. “You’re talking about somebody who recently lost his aldermanic election and the RCC.” O’Donnell is President of the Ravenswood Community Council (RCC), exposed by Center Square Journal last year for severe financial mismanagement and not fulfilling city contracts while employing political cronies.
The suit against O’Donnell also casts a potentially wider net, as it names John Does #1 through #4 and then names a number of other 47th Ward political figures as Respondents-in-discovery: Chris Schikles, executive director of the RCC; Bill Helm, former 47th Ward Democratic Organization president; Peter D’Augustino, RCC board member; Mark Dillon, a member of the SSA #38 board; and Lisa Wang, a former girlfriend of Bill Helm. All could potentially be named later as defendants in the suit.
Contacted last week, Helm said he had no knowledge of the letters and added that he has only tried to help FitzGerald and Gibbons. “I’ve helped [FitzGerald] all through his career…I had nothing to do with it,” said Helm.
Correction: Former Ald. Schulter did not name FitzGerald to the Chamber position. He was selected by an independent board of directors. We regret the error.