Tuesday, November 10, 2015 || Originally Published: Cook County Chronicle || By Bill Dwyer
Cracks are appearing in the coalition that just this past April took over governance of the Proviso High Schools District 209 board.
Just one week after signing a joint contract with the Robbins Schwartz and Grasso Bass law firms as its new legal counsel, the D209 board will consider an agenda item to rescind that contract.
The controversy arises as Board President Teresa Kelly asked its new legal counsel to review all district contracts.
Board member Brian Cross and Vice President Kevin McDermott say the action is necessary due to concerns about the alleged political involvement of both Robbins Schwartz and Grasso Bass principal Tony Bass, and Bass’s purported lack of educational law experience.
Cross said Saturday that the process felt “very rushed,” and that after he looked further at the new law firms, “It just didn’t smell right.”
Other members of the new board majority, including Kelly, (pictured above center) Secretary Claudia Medina (pictured above right) and Nathan “Ned” Wagner, (pictured above left), say that concern is unfounded and is a blatant attempt to “sabotage” the board’s hiring decision.
Kelly noted that Robbins Schwartz works for “65 school districts” and called them “a pioneer of school law.”
“To try to bring that (firm) down, either one of these (firms) is just wrong,” Kelly said.
Medina, who helped lead the five-month long process for the Request for Proposals that led to the selection of the law firms, said the board approved the new firm’s hiring by a 5-1 vote in late October. A contract was signed Nov. 2.
On Thursday Nov. 5, Cross’ agenda item appeared. Cross is a political loyalist to former board president Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a long-time political ally and supporter of Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico, who has ties to DelGaldo.
Cross called the process “rushed” and said, “I’m not going to get the attorney I want. (But) I just want a fair fight.”
In April, Welch’s three hand-picked school board candidates, including his wife ShawnTe, were defeated by a reform slate headed by long-time D209 board member Kelly.
DelGaldo and Associates applied for consideration in the recent selection process, but did not make the final list.
Medina said the allegation that the selection process was rushed is simply wrong.
“I’m vehemently against a board member sabotaging a five-months long process to hire a law firm. They had five months to research this,” she said.
That process, she noted, included a detailed matrix outlining the standards and qualities sought in a new legal counsel.
“No (non-majority) board member bothered to do any research on this. None,” she said.
McDermott and Cross both insisted there are legitimate concerns to discuss. McDermott said Robbins Schwartz “materially misrepresented the composition of their legal team,” saying the firm’s Bob Riley “assured us that Grasso Bass would play a minor role and Robbins Schwartz would lead the team.”
“During our interview process several board members expressed concern that the tiny law firm of Grasso Bass, whose attorneys have very little experience in school law, were part of the bid. Mr. Bob Riley of Robbins Schwartz, who presented himself as the lead attorney on the Proviso account,“ McDermott said.
“Events suggest that Robbins Schwartz takes its direction from Anthony Bass, not vice versa. This is definitely not the arrangement that many of us thought we were voting on,” he said.
“We specifically asked to not have Tony Bass,” Cross said. “Now we see he’s the main guy.” Bass, he said, “doesn’t have the educational background” needed for a large district like Proviso.
However, Kelly said Anthony Bass would have a limited role, handling only contracts and minority hiring.
Medina said the concerns over Bass’ expertise are the result of a smear campaign that started during his tenure in Thornton District 205.
Edward Crayton served as vice president of the southwest suburban Thornton High School board from 2011 to 2015. He was part of a majority opposed to the practices of then-board president Kenneth Williams, a convicted felon.
Crayton’s new majority brought in Grasso Bass and Robbins Schwartz to correct what he said were a litany of mistakes and overbilling by the previous law firm.
“I found their work to be extremely professional and extremely helpful,” Crayton said of Grasso Bass. “They helped us take a proactive approach to things.”
Of Bass himself, Crayton said, “My experience was nothing but positive.” He accused members of Williams’ board faction of spreading lies about Bass.
“Mr. Bass told them ‘no,’” Crayton said. “From that point it became a smear campaign by some members of the school board.”
McDermott also noted that Robbins Schwartz was part of the recent contracting scandal at College of DuPage, something he says he finds disqualifying.
“Although I am embarrassed to admit this, we did not conduct sufficient due diligence on this firm before selecting them,” McDermott said. “Had we done so, we would have found that they were intimately involved in the enormous financial scandal that erupted at the College of DuPage. The Chicago Tribune singled out Robbins Schwartz as a key beneficiary of the misspent money at COD.”
The Tribune article does not disclose whether the $1.6 million paid to Robbins Schwartz since 2010 (actually, $3.3 million between 2005-2015) was “misspent,” only that a member of the firm served on the college’s foundation board.
McDermott also accused Robbins Schwartz of misrepresenting their involvement in local politics. He and others, he said, “have struggled with the apparent conflict of interest presented by law firms that support slates of candidates in local elections, and the desire of the board was to find a firm that did not engage in this potential conflict of interest.”
“Yet, once again embarrassingly, a bit of too-late due diligence reveals that Robbins Schwartz is actively engaged in this type of activity, to the tune of more than $81,000 over the last span of years.
Medina said that’s just not true, saying, “We checked each of the law firms. They were no large checks like we were seeing with DelGaldo and Chris Welch. They’re trying to make small things look suspicious.”
A review of the political contributions of the law firms applying at D209 shows that all of them contribute politically to a greater or lesser degree, with Robbins Schwartz falling in the middle.
The Illinois State Board of Elections filings indicate that with two exceptions, Robbins Schwartz’s contributions were smaller than DelGaldo, who has contributed $311,080.98 since 2002. DelGaldo gave $9,387.83 to Welch-backed D209 candidates in 2013 and $8,214.14 to Welch’s D209 slate in 2015.
Robbins Schwartz’s largest donations were $10,000 in 2011 and $7,500 in 2000 to a campaign to issue bonds for improvements at Harper College in Palatine. Between 2005 and 2014 the firm made 13 contributions totaling $11,150 to Alsip Citizens for Independent Candidates. And this June it gave $5,000 to Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar’s campaign.
With the exception of a couple $1,000 contributions, the rest of their contributions since 1999 were between $200 and $600, totaling approximately $57,000 to 34 separate campaigns, with no donations to the College of DuPage.
Anthony Bass personally made regular non-major donations to several politicians and political groups between 2000 and 2013, including $5,300 to former Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore, $10,120 to the Chicago 8th Ward Democrats and $10,100 to Todd Stroger.
Kelly said she believed the motive for challenging the new legal counsel was the district’s pending review of district contracts, including all insurance fees and a 2014 no-bid contract worth $5 million.
“I asked the superintendent to direct the administrator contracts and the insurance contracts and all vendor contracts to the new law firm,” Kelly said. “That’s what I feel they’re afraid of here,” (Bass) is going to come in and clean stuff up. He’s known for it.”
Wagner, who opined, “What I want is to stand by our choice,” said that however the board proceeds, it needs to be deliberate.
“Robbins Schwartz and Grasso Bass have not done anything to merit rescinding their contract,” he said. Noting that the board worked in “a reasoned and measured way together” to select the two law firms, Wagner said the board needs to do the same with Cross’s request.
“We’re going to pull that item from the consent agenda and we will discuss it in public,” he said. VFP