CHICAGO (CBS) — A federal lawsuit about to go to trial alleges Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office has retaliated against employees who didn’t support Dart politically.
CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley reports longtime Cook County Sheriff’s Lt. Doug Zimny claims he has been the target of a campaign of sustained harassment, all because he supported Dart’s opponent in the 2006 election.
Zimny is a 23-year-veteran of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department – a department he said turned against him, all because of politics.
“Everybody’s supposed to do the right thing. At least, that’s what we’re told. And then you go in there, and the people that are supposed to uphold the law are violating the law by violating your rights,” Zimny said.
Zimny said trouble began when he supported Richard Remus for sheriff in 2006, against the eventual winner, Tom Dart.
Remus was also Zimny’s boss, as chief of the department’s Special Operation Response Team. At the time, Dart was chief of staff for then-Sheriff Michael Sheahan.
Zimny said veteran political operative James “Skinny” Sheahan – a 19th Ward ally of Dart, and brother of former Cook County Sheriff Mike Sheahan – warned him there would be consequences for failing to support Dart’s bid to replace Mike Sheahan when the former sheriff stepped down in 2006.
“Skinny had came back to me and told me … ‘Well, they’re telling me that you’re not a team player?’ What kind of team player do i have to be besides doing my job?” Zimny said.
Zimny alleged, after that, he was denied a promotion, and his work hours repeatedly changed.
He filed a complaint against Dart, charging political retaliation in violation of the federal Shakman Decree prohibiting political considerations in the hiring and promotion for most government jobs at the city and county level. He said he won a financial settlement in that case, but the harassment didn’t stop.
Zimny’s lawyer, Dana Kurtz, said the harassment included “denial of promotion to commander, false investigations, [and] disciplinary actions being reinitiated when they had been previously dismissed.”
Now, Zimny has filed a federal lawsuit, claiming Dart violated his First Amendment rights to free speech, as well as the Illinois Whistleblower Act.
“How do you win against a system that’s out to get you? You can’t,” Zimny said.
Zimny is currently on leave, but the sheriff’s office is trying to fire him for allegedly committing fraud during a Texas fishing tournament, and for allegedly trying to intervene in his wife’s shoplifting case.
But Kurtz said Zimny’s not the only victim of political retaliation. She also represents 22 other sheriff’s officers, all former supporters of Remus.
Their harassment lawsuit in federal court goes to trial next week.