Tressler Addresses Issues Raised in Odelson Report
Tressler lays out facts that it says will "set the record straight" during tenure as the village attorney.
The law firm that was hired in 2005 to handle Oak Lawn’s legal business has characterized claims raised in an investigative report that the firm overbilled and dropped the ball on important litigation as being full of inaccuracies.
Tressler, Soderstrom, Maloney & Preiss was hired in October 2005 at the recommendation of Mayor Dave Heilmann at a monthly retainer of $21,000. After the village’s legal fees tripled during the nearly four years that the firm had served as the village’s legal counsel, village board members hired attorney Burt Odelson to conduct an independent investigation into Tressler’s billings and practices.
The Odelson report that was submitted to the village board in closed session last month, and eventually was leaked to Patch, alleged that Tressler and another independent attorney hired by the village during the period, Norm Chimenti, may have cost the village an estimated $8 million to $10 million in economic damages.
Among the report’s allegations, Tressler mishandled collecting sales tax from Target, failed to communicate a female firefighter’s settlement offers concerning a sexual harassment lawsuit to the village board, and put attorneys inexperienced in municipal law in charge of the village’s legal business.
On Tuesday, Tressler attorney D.J. Sartorio told Patch that his firm did not see the report until it was posted on Oak Lawn Patch.
“We certainly weren’t provided with a copy before or anytime other than getting it off the Internet from Patch,” Sartorio said. “Had we not gotten it from your publication we only would have gotten it again through a freedom of information request.”
Tressler also issued a media statement last week concerning the allegations raised in Odelson’s “Investigative Executive Summary” addressing the issues raised in the report.
Tressler claims that it submitted invoices according to processes established by the village. Sartorio included an email to Village Manager Larry Deetjen and Brian Hanigan, the village finance direcotr, regarding duplicate payments made by the village discovered by the firm. The village instructed Tressler to apply the overpayments as "credits" for other village business.
With respect to the two $21,000 payments that the report claims were duplicate payments, Sartorio claims that Tressler filed a Freedom of Information Act request for internal email between Hanigan and another village employee.
Sartorio said his firm reported to Hanigan that the two $21,000 payments were for the June and July 2007 retainer.
In May 2009, there was a payment for other legal work separate from that covered under Tressler’s retainer.
“(The) internal Oak Lawn document would appear to refute the claim that there were duplicate payments in those two instances,” Sartorio said.
Sartorio also added that the village still owes Tressler $96,000 on outstanding invoices.
The Januszewski Case
Tressler also maintains that strategy and settlement concerning Oak Lawn firefighter Sharon Januszewski’s sexual harassment lawsuit against the village and four Oak Lawn firefighters was fully discussed in a lengthy executive session of the village board in January 2008.
Sartorio said Tressler has requested a copy of the audiotape of the Jan. 7, 2008 executive session.
“We are currently in court attempting to obtain the audiotape through a lawsuit filed by our lawyers,” Sartorio said, “but the village has ferociously fought us at every turn to make sure that we can’t get that audiotape.”
According to Sartorio, trustees can be heard on the audiotape of the executive session weighing in on strategy, and some “complained bitterly” about how much money was going to be offered and were “insisting that it be offered in small increments.”
Tressler initially offered Januszewski a $50,000 settlement per the village board’s direction, and authorized Tressler to offer up to $200,000.
“We believe very strongly that the audiotape will establish as inaccurate the representation made with respect to that executive session,” Sartorio said.
Regarding claims that Tressler failed to turn over 250 documents requested by Odelson during the investigation, Sartorio said he had “no idea” what those documents were.
“(We) turned over the entire Target file when asked and did that in every other instance,” Sartorio said. “The (report) doesn’t identify what (the other documents) are. I’m unaware what they are. As I sit here today, there was no request for documents that we didn’t comply with.”
In 2005, Tressler merged with the well-known municipal law firm Moss and Bloomberg. The Odelson report has maintained that Tressler lawyers assigned to the village were inexperienced in municipal law.
Sartorio said that while not all of the firm’s lawyers assigned to work with the village were from the Moss and Bloomberg municipal arm of the firm, those who participated in village board meetings were “legacy” attorneys from Moss and Bloomberg.
Kathy Elliot, who is referred to in the Odelson report as mishandling creating an ordinance to set up a special service area that would have allowed the village to collect sales tax from Target, came to Tressler after 20 years of serving as the city attorney for Rockford.
“Miss Elliot repeatedly reminded the village that they needed to (set up the ordinance),” Sartorio said. “The village board for whatever reason repeatedly failed to put it on its agenda and that’s the reason why it wasn’t enacted.”
‘Triple Legal Fees’
Sartorio said that between November 2005 and June 2010, Tressler billed the village $3.4 million in legal fees. Roughly $930,000, he said, was attributable to the Januszewski case.
“Take her out of the mix, you end up with $2.5 million in fees spread out over 4.5 years, averaging $560,000 per year,” Sartorio said.
Prior to Tressler’s hiring in 2005, the village paid the former village attorneys approximately $550,000 annually in retainers and other litigation work.
‘Not Interested in Motivations’
Sartorio said his firm was not interested in any possible personal agendas that may have motivated the Odelson report.
“Frankly, my suspicions are that various trustees may very well not have the same motivations,” he said.
“Our only concern is that the picture being painted of our firm is inaccurate and unflattering,” Sartorio said. “We’ve made efforts to try to resolve this and we’ve always been open to discussion. We’ve invited discussion. The village has the right not to discuss anything with us.”
Sartorio said that he anticipated a lawsuit against his firm by the village.
“We had hoped that we could resolve this with the village, but now that his report has been leaked it appears unlikely to me,” he said. “With the number of matters that are raised in this presentation, the litigation would be lengthy and likely to be very expensive. That’s unfortunate, at least from the perspective of the Village of Oak Lawn, because we fully expect to prevail.”
He called the claims raised in the report “out of left field for us.”
“As much as we’re caught in the middle, we actually feel that citizens of Oak Lawn are caught in the middle too,” Sartorio said. “That’s particularly unfortunate because they are very good people.”