COD chairman's defamation suit tossed out
By Christy Gutowski<about:blank> | Daily Herald StaffContact writer<about:blank>
A DuPage County judge tossed out College of DuPage Board Chairman Micheal McKinnon's lawsuit against three former female trustees who alleged he inappropriately talked to or touched them.
McKinnon, who is seeking re-election this spring, filed the defamation suit Oct. 17 against Mary A. Mack, Jane Herron and Mary Sue Brown after the allegations were published in a weekly newspaper.
On Wednesday, Associate Judge Joseph Bongiorno dismissed the suit, which sought $6 million in damages.
At issue wasn't whether the women defamed McKinnon or if their remarks were even truthful. Rather, Bongiorno agreed with the women's attorneys that the defendants had immunity from such suits under a state law that raises the bar for accusers to sue public officials.
The law, dubbed the Illinois Public Participation Act, is relatively new and without much prior case law to guide judges in their interpretation of how it is to be applied. Still, Bongiorno ruled McKinnon failed to meet his burden of "clear and convincing" evidence that the trio made the remarks as part of a "political vendetta," as he alleged, designed to undermine his "position and influence on the board of trustees."
"The ultimate question is whether the filing of this lawsuit has a chilling effect on the public participation of these three defendants," Bongiorno said. "I agree it's a dispute of public interest. The defendants and the plaintiff are in the public arena. They chose to be in the public arena. Clearly, they are entitled to the immunity allowed in this act."
The former trustees are expected to seek attorney fees from McKinnon. He, too, has the right to appeal Bongiorno's ruling to a higher court.
Meanwhile, Mack's suit against McKinnon and COD still is pending. She filed a counter claim in December, arguing the college should have defended her against McKinnon's defamation suit. Mack also accused McKinnon of battery.
In January 2008, Mack resigned her trustee position, citing her opinion of a lack of leadership and "Gestapo-like tactics of intimidation and sexual harassment."
In McKinnon's suit, it was alleged Mack told board member Mark Nowak that the chairman in March 2007 had "grabbed her really hard, rubbed his body against hers." Mack also is accused of telling Trustee David Carlin that McKinnon "hugged her, pulled her close to him and said, 'Oh, so firm,'" according to the chairman's defamation suit.
Mack then contacted former COD President Harold McAninch about the alleged inappropriate contact.
Mack did not file a police report until after the statute of limitations had expired.
Herron, who resigned from the board in 2007, made a similar charge about inappropriate contact with McKinnon during a 2002 meeting. And Brown, a Glen Ellyn resident who served on the board from 1995 to 2005, said in the media report that McKinnon had made a crude remark to her about Herron.
"There's no doubt people have begun to use our judicial system as a club to shut other people up, and the legislature recognizes that," said attorney Thomas Knight, who represented Herron.
McKinnon was not in court Wednesday. He has called the former trustees' remarks, "absolutely false."
His attorney, Robert Marcott, argued the women made the comments to the newspaper long after their tenure on the board had ended and, as such, no longer had immunity under the state law. He noted the constitution does not protect public officials from making defamatory remarks against another and that McKinnon should be allowed the chance to prove they were false in court.
"If you dismiss this lawsuit," Marcott told the judge, "you send a clear message to anyone who is running for village board, village mayor or for dogcatcher that they can be falsely accused of the most horrendous acts and have no recourse in court."
In another related case:
College of DuPage candidates kicked off ballot
While it took about 20 minutes on average to dispose of six challenges to College of DuPage trustee candidates Tuesday, the seventh and final electoral board hearing proved to be a doozy.
Clocking in at almost four hours, the objection hearing into whether challenger Sandy Kim has lived in the college district for the requisite year turned into an exercise in legal theory.
The protracted battle eventually went to Kim's camp by a 2-1 vote, the only split decision of the day. Board Chairman Mike McKinnon was the lone dissenting vote while board secretary Kay Neely and Trustee Kathy Wessel voted for Kim.
The beleaguered candidate had no idea why her hearing dragged on for so long.
"I really don't know," she said afterward. "But I fought this hard to stay on the ballot, so I guess I'll keep on fighting."
At the heart of the debate was the statute that requires college trustee candidates to maintain residency for a year before the election. In this case, that's a year from the upcoming April 7 election.
Current - but outgoing - COD trustee Kory Atkinson objected to Kim's candidacy papers, arguing she hadn't lived in the district a year despite presenting documentation that she signed a lease on her West Chicago home in early March 2008.
He claimed she hadn't shown "intent" to maintain residency by waiting to register to vote until last October.
Kim, a recent graduate of the college, will keep her spot on the ballot for the one 2-year term along with incumbent Mark Nowak and fellow challenger Jeffrey Handel, who also survived challenges Tuesday.
Another challenger, Gino Impellezzeri, was not so fortunate.
He railed against the electoral board's decision to remove his name from the ballot because he didn't specify which term he was seeking.
"Are we stupid or what?" he shouted. "If you think you are getting rid of me, you are wrong. Whether or not I'm elected, I'm not finished here."
There are also three 6-year terms up for grabs on April 7.
There were challenges to three candidates in that race as well, which met with mixed results. Kim Savage and Tom Wendorf successfully fought off challenges, but Terrell Barnes bowed out after a check of signatures on his petitions last week left him without the required number.
That narrows the race for those three seats to 10 candidates.
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