Jail lawsuit plaintiff likely to receive nothing

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11708800067098.jpg’, ‘Photo provided’, ‘Jail lawsuit plaintiff Timothy Chatmon is prepared to represent himself in court Feb. 14. Chatmon’s attorneys said in court documents they are no longer interested in pursuing Chatmon’s personal claims, only the class-action jail overcrowding lawsuit that has earned his attorneys at least $152,505 from Winnebago County.‘);

Clout-connected cash in on new $160 million jail while taxpayers foot the bill

A predictable twist in the lawsuit that may forever cost Winnebago County taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year will likely take shape in federal court in Rockford Feb. 14.

Jail lawsuit plaintiff Timothy Chatmon said he has no option but to represent himself in court to win compensation for his personal claims beginning that day. Chatmon is the primary litigant in the 2000 federal jail overcrowding lawsuit that was used to persuade Winnebago County voters in 2002 to support an increase in the sales tax to fund the construction of a new 1,212-bed jail.

Chatmon’s attorneys said in court documents they are no longer interested in representing his personal claims, only the class-action portion of the lawsuit that has already earned them at least $152,505 from Winnebago County.

Attorneys Thomas E. Greenwald and John F. Heckinger Jr., wrote in a Dec. 18, 2006, motion filed in federal court that they wanted to “withdraw as personal attorneys for Timothy Chatmon with respect to any personal claims…but not withdraw as attorneys for any of the classes that have been certified in the above entitled action. …[Because] there is an obvious breakdown of confidence” between the attorneys and Chatmon.

The motion comes in spite of a 2004 letter in which Heckinger wrote, “As I have repeatedly advised you, when the case is ultimately concluded in 2007 or later, the issue of compensation for you and your son as class representatives will be addressed.”

Chatmon said the lawsuit was never about alleged jail overcrowding, as his attorneys asserted. Chatmon said the primary purpose of the lawsuit was to address adverse public health conditions in the facility—something he said could have been easily addressed without the construction the new jail.

During a Jan. 7 interview, Chatmon said: “[H]ow could you represent this class-action, and not represent my personal claims? How could you distinguish this? How do you separate this?”

Neither Heckinger nor Greenwald responded to answer Chatmon’s questions or for comment about this article. And while the federal court may answer Chatmon’s questions Feb. 14, following the evolution of the jail lawsuit is central to understanding how Chatmon, Greenwald and Heckinger arrived at this point in their dispute.

Most expensive project in county history

Winnebago County voters approved a 16 percent increase in the county’s sales tax in November 2002 to fund the most expensive public construction project in Winnebago County history—a new $160 million criminal-justice facility in downtown Rockford. The 16 percent increase forced the county sales tax from 6.25 percent to 7.25 percent on July 1, 2003, which annually collects an estimated $24 to $28 million from consumers.

The new jail on West State Street in downtown Rockford is scheduled to open this spring, and will more than triple the number of beds in the facility from 394 to 1,212. The sprawling complex will be 558,000 square feet, which is equivalent to more than 12 football fields.

During the campaign for the tax referendum in 2002, many voters based their decision to approve the tax hike on issues raised in Heckinger and Greenwald’s lawsuit—issues repeatedly cited by Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli, the chief proponent of the jail tax.

Since the tax went into effect, consumers buying products in Winnebago County have paid approximately $90 million more in sales tax, while clout-connected construction companies, attorneys and financial institutions have cashed in on the project.

The 2000 lawsuit was filed by Heckinger and Greenwald on behalf of Chatmon and other inmates in the county jail. Chatmon’s son, Timothy C. Chatman Jr., was later added to the lawsuit as a secondary plaintiff in 2001.

Heckinger and Greenwald will also likely receive more money in the case before it is probably closed this year, in addition to the cash they were already awarded. Meanwhile, Chatmon will likely receive nothing for his personal claims.

However, questions remain whether Chatmon’s son will receive compensation for his part in the litigation. Chatmon’s son was added to the lawsuit in 2001 because “there was a threat that the suit would be thrown out because I was out of jail,” Chatmon said.

Chatmon was incarcerated at the Winnebago County jail from 1995 to 2000 on what he alleged were bogus drug and weapon charges. His son was incarcerated at the Winnebago County jail on robbery and weapons charges in 2001, and was added as a secondary plaintiff in the lawsuit the same year. He is now in Pinckneyville Correctional Center in downstate Illinois.

Chatmon said his son would likely not be in prison today had he been there to help raise him. However, he wasn’t around during his son’s formative years because Chatmon was incarcerated more than five years on alleged murder charges that were ultimately dropped.

Chatman Jr. was not available for comment in time for publication.

The trial that never happened

Chatmon has been trying to replace Heckinger and Greenwald for more than three years. However, he cannot find any attorneys willing to take his case this late in the proceedings.

Chatmon asserted the lawsuit was never about alleged jail overcrowding. Instead, the lawsuit was supposed to address adverse public health conditions in the facility. Chatmon added that the lawsuit was also about other alleged activities in the jail, which The Rock River Times plans to report in a future article.

According to Chatmon, the primary issue included conditions that could have been easily addressed, and did not require the construction of a new jail. Such conditions included the multiple use of shaving razors and toothbrushes by different inmates. The items were allegedly provided by jail staff.

If this were a routine practice, as Chatmon stated in his June 17, 2002, court deposition, the action could have transmitted disease-causing viruses and bacteria from one infected inmate to non-infected inmates—diseases such as hepatitis C, which Chatmon believes he contracted in jail.

Caused by a virus in the blood, hepatitis C can cause chronic liver problems in 70 percent of those affected, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The disease was the most common blood-borne pathogen in the U.S. in the 1990s.

Dr. Morris D. Cooper, professor and chairman of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, offered his opinion about Chatmon’s personal claims in a Sept. 27, 2002, letter to Greenwald.

In the letter, Cooper wrote: “Poor hygienic practices (such as the sharing of razors and toothbrushes) would increase the potential for spread of the virus. However, proving that these conditions existed in the jail, and that individuals other than Mr. Chatmon were infected, and were in either the fights with him or shared razors and toothbrushes appears to me to be the central question.

“The bottom line is that there were conditions at the jail in which an individual infected with hepatitis C virus could spread the disease. Whether this occurred in Mr. Chatmon’s case is unclear,” Cooper wrote.

CDC estimated in a 1998 report that 1.8 percent of the general population in the U.S. was afflicted with hepatitis C. A similar estimate of the general inmate population afflicted with hepatitis C could not be determined by time of publication.

Such testimonials and data will likely never be scrutinized in a trial because of an Oct. 17, 2003, agreement to avoid litigation that was approved by the county’s attorneys, Chatmon’s attorneys and the federal court.

Chatmon, however, said he was not aware of the agreement, and would never have approved.

'Fraud and deception'

Before Chatmon was notified that Greenwald and Heckinger wanted to drop his personal claims, Chatmon was already seeking new attorneys. Chatmon wanted new legal representation because he was upset the attorneys approved the
stay of litigation that stipulated building the new jail.

Chatmon said his confidence in his attorneys irrevocably turned after he read a Dec. 31, 2003, article in The Rock River Times, which Chatmon said prompted him to file his own motion in May 2004 that sought to “nullify the [2003] agreement.”

The article detailed the Winnebago County Board’s approval of paying $152,505 to Heckinger and Greenwald for their part in the lawsuit through December 2003. In addition, the article described how the attorneys previously filed other alleged jail overcrowding lawsuits in Winnebago and Stephenson counties in the 1990s.

Collectively, Heckinger and Greenwald were awarded at least $437,500 by Winnebago and Stephenson counties for their three jail lawsuits, as of December 2003.

Chatmon alleged that despite Heckinger’s claim in 2004 that he “would be paid as representative of the class” after the attorneys received their money from the county, neither he nor his son has ever been paid.

In his May 2004 motion to “nullify the [2003] agreement,” Chatmon wrote on behalf of himself and his son: “Due to fraud and deception this agreement has been entered without the consent or knowledge of the plaintiffs…the only remedy is to nullify the agreement and start anew” (read more about Chatmon and his son’s incarceration in The Rock River Times’ online archives under “Jail lawsuit plaintiff urges tax repeal” from the Sept. 29-Oct. 5, 2004, issue).

Chatmon’s motion was rejected June 22, 2004, by Federal District Court Judge Philip G. Reinhard on grounds his petition was untimely.

In reaction to the ruling, Chatmon said Jan. 19: “How could he reject my motion on those grounds, and accept an agreement that wasn’t signed and approved by the class representatives? It makes no sense.”

Reinhard was Winnebago County assistant state’s attorney from 1964 to 1967, and Winnebago County state’s attorney from 1968 to 1976. He was nominated as federal judge by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Reinhard has been on the federal bench since Feb. 10, 1992, and is planning to retire soon (read more about Reinhard in The Rock River Times’ online archives under “Garbage contracts stink,” published Feb. 23-March 1, 2005, and “Reinhard in 1969: Rockford Mobsters ‘retired or inactive’,” published Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2006).

Appointment to another jail lawsuit

In addition to the three known jail lawsuits, Heckinger was appointed to a fourth alleged jail overcrowding lawsuit in January 2005 by Federal Magistrate Judge P. Michael Mahoney.

In the January 2005 jail overcrowding lawsuit—filed three years after voters had already approved the expansion of the Winnebago County justice center—Heckinger and inmate Kevin Lee Carter alleged a 2003 beating in the jail was the result of a “lack of areas” to separate sex offenders from prisoners who may cause them harm. They also asserted there was a “lack of areas to place prisoners, for their own safety, away from the general population.”

Such alleged space problems should not be an issue after the jail grows from 394 beds to 1,212 beds.

During the 1990s, Mahoney oversaw the Rockford Public School District’s 12-year desegregation lawsuit, which ultimately cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to records at the Northern Illinois University Regional History Center, Mahoney ruled the district consistently broke the law by segregating minorities. To address issues in Mahoney’s ruling, the district spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools and create programs. But key portions of Mahoney’s Comprehensive Remedial Order, which required costly remedies, were ultimately struck down in 1997 by a federal appellate court.

Similar to Chatmon, the original plaintiffs in the desegregation lawsuit had an attorney who turned their claims into a class-action suit while they never received what they sought—to have West Middle School re-opened as a high school.

Again, as with the Chatmon case, construction companies, attorneys, financial institutions and various other entities benefited financially from the desegregation lawsuit, while the original plaintiffs’ complaints were never fully addressed, and taxpayers paid millions in property taxes to fund the construction projects and the court-ordered programs.

A new life, seeking justice

While Heckinger and Greenwald may get their wish to drop Chatmon’s personal claims, Chatmon said he has been preparing for that probability, and is working hard to forge a new life in Texas with his wife of 11 years.

He is attending classes and earning credits toward an associate’s degree in social work or counseling.

Chatmon said he is not giving up on the lawsuit, even if he has no attorney to represent his interests. He vowed to “seek justice” in court for the damage done to him and his family, despite severely limited financial and legal resources.

Chatmon is prepared to plead his case until all his legal options are exhausted.

Editor’s note: For more about the jail overcrowding lawsuit, log on to www.rockrivertimes.com and click on “Online Exclusives.”

From the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue

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