JEFFERSON PARK — City attorneys have finalized a settlement to end a three-year legal battle between a former 45th Ward constituent, Ald. Jim Gardiner, his former aide and several Northwest Side police officers.
Benjamin George, a former Jefferson Park resident, sued Gardiner, former ward superintendent Charles Sikanich, the city and seven officers from the Jefferson Park (16th) Police District in November 2020, claiming the alderman falsely accused him of a crime, harassed him and had him arrested over a lost cell phone that belonged to Sikanich.
After a lengthy discovery period, the city agreed to pay George $100,000 in damages, according to court records.
In a statement through his attorney, Daniel Massoglia, George said he’s glad to “finally have this issue behind me.”
“The harm caused by the defendants’ actions against me has caused an immense amount of anguish and suffering. My employee and I lost our only source of income, causing me to lose my house which led to my mental health rapidly deteriorating,” George said. “I had no choice but to leave the great city I grew up in and was proud to call home … No Chicagoan should ever have to go through what I experienced.”
A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department declined to comment. Gardiner and Sikanich’s lawyer did not return requests for comment.
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability cleared two officers of wrongdoing in the case earlier this year. Complaints and investigations against the five other officers were not submitted to the oversight agency, officials previously said.
George, who owned a construction and repair company on the Northwest Side, said in the lawsuit he found a cellphone inside a 7-Eleven at 6000 W. Higgins Ave. on Aug. 19, 2019.
He picked up the phone, belonging to Sikanich, while checking out at the 7-Eleven and planned to take it to the local police station at the end of his day, according to the suit.
Community-focused. Reader-funded. Journalist-run.
Support Chicago’s neighborhood news. Support Block Club today.
Sikanich told Gardiner he had lost his phone, and the alderman allegedly told Sikanich to report it stolen instead of lost, the suit claimed.
George did not use the phone during the day, and the phone did not receive calls or texts, according to the lawsuit. However, before George went to the police station, two Chicago police officers showed up at his apartment, where they “aggressively, profanely and threateningly” asked George’s roommate about the phone, according to the suit.
George was on his way to the station to return the phone when he received a call from his roommate, who told him the police were at their apartment, according to the lawsuit.
Over the phone, George asked an officer if he should bring the phone home or to the station. The officer told him to bring the phone to the station, which he did, according to the lawsuit.
After officers left George’s apartment, Gardiner and Sikanich separately also visited the apartment, according to the suit. Both used disparaging language about George to his roommate, the suit claimed.
Once at the station, George, who is Romanian, was arrested and held at the district lockup for more than 24 hours, during which police belittled him and called him a “gypsy,” a slur, according to the suit.
The suit also claimed an officer told George, “I believe you. I wasn’t going to arrest you, but this person has power and I have bosses.”
George was held overnight before being released and the charges were later dropped.
Massoglia previously said George had no relationship with Gardiner or Sikanich, and could not say why they would make a false allegation, as the suit claimed.
Separately, Sikanich is under investigation for trying to sell a World War II heirloom illegal machine gun while on the clock for his government job and faces charges of possession and attempted sale of that gun.
The settlement amount means city attorneys will not have to submit it to City Council for approval, potentially sparing Gardiner any more visibility around the case.
The settlement comes just a few days after another lawsuit against the alderman is moving forward to a trial.
A federal judge ruled Monday that Gardiner violated his constituents’ First Amendment rights by blocking them from his official Facebook account between 2019-2021.
The residents’ lawsuit, filed in 2021, accused Gardiner of violating the First Amendment by silencing his critics, even though he was aware of the laws barring him from doing so.
A jury will now determine if Gardiner will pay damages to the critics who sued him.
He still faces a third lawsuit, in which constituent James Suh alleges the alderman violated his First Amendment by attempting to retaliate him for organizing a protest that was in part against the alderman. Suh was also a plaintiff in the previous lawsuit.
Apart from the lawsuits, the alderman faces other investigations into his conduct.
Most recently, the city’s watchdog found he directed city employees to issue “unfounded citations” to one of his critics in 2019, also a plaintiff in the social media lawsuit.
The Chicago Board of Ethics could fine Gardiner in October for violating the city’s ethics ordinance in connection with that finding by the inspector general, WTTW reported.
Earlier this month, Gardiner decided not to run for 45th Ward committeeperson for the Cook County Democratic Party. In 2021, the political party stripped of all of his committee posts and formally reprimanded him after he used misogynistic and sexist language in leaked text messages and faced misconduct allegations.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: