Sheriff stalls merit board firings, discipline amid lawsuits

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 06:54:52 AM. The state supreme court declined to review a lower court ruling that found the sheriff's Merit Board had several members who were improperly appointed

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has called off hearings for the board that handles discipline for sheriff’s officers amid a flurry of litigation over firings and suspensions dating back more than five years.

The move comes months after the state supreme court declined to review a lower court ruling that found the sheriff’s Merit Board had several members who were improperly appointed – a decision that has thrown into disarray hundreds of firing and suspension decisions.

Currently, several hundred disciplinary cases are on hold, as the sheriff waits for Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign off on legislation passed last month that would remedy the problem, said Cara Smith, Dart’s chief of policy.

Since at least 2011, the board has had at least one member who was named to serve for a term shorter than the six-year appointment in state law — and a violation that the appeals court ruled invalidated the board’s decisions. The ruling means that hundreds of sheriff’s officers are entitled to get their jobs back, with back pay, lawyer Christopher Moore said on Monday after a court hearing at the Daley Center.

On behalf of four officers with board hearings set for Thursday, Moore had asked a judge for an injunction that would completely shut down the board until a fully-legal board is appointed. Sheriff’s officials emailed him at Monday’s hearing to notify him that the officers’ hearing was canceled, and Moore said he wanted them back on the payroll immediately.

“These guys have been off work, without pay, for more than a year,” Moore said. “The holidays are coming up. They have children, they want to buy Christmas presents for their families.”

Moore, who represents more than dozen sheriff’s officers who have protested their firing or suspensions on similar grounds, said Dart should have halted board activity when the appeals court ruled against the sheriff in 2016.

On Monday, another of Moore’s clients, Dixie Rios, returned to work as a sheriff’s officer for the first time since 2014, when she was fired for allegedly passing on a threat from a gang member relative to a jail inmate.

Last week, a judge ruled that Rios had to be reinstated and given some $300,000 in back pay.

Smith said that the board could not afford to completely stall disciplinary action against problem officers.

Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Rauner, said the governor received the legislation that would allow partial terms for board members and other changes only last week.

“We have to do our due diligence,” Schuh said. “I don’t know when he’s going to sign it, but we just got it.”

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