Pick for Chicago Park District top lawyer withdraws

ATTORNEY

Weeks after being offered the $198,000-a-year job — and days before he was scheduled to begin work — the lawyer chosen to be the new general counsel for the Chicago Park District said Tuesday he would “withdraw my name from consideration.”

The move by Evanston Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings followed recent reports about a federal civil rights lawsuit in which his deputy in the northern suburb alleges “racist and misogynistic harassment and a “hostile work environment.”

The spokesperson for the Park District told WBEZ that the agency’s leaders were “not aware of the lawsuit at the time they offered him the job.” The lawsuit is pending in the U.S. District Court in Chicago.

But in a scathing letter Tuesday to Park District CEO Rosa Escareño and Park District Board President Myetie Hamilton in which he removed himself from consideration, Cummings also wrote that he had told the Park District that the accusations in Evanston were investigated last year by an outside law firm and found to be “unfounded.”

“These facts and the allegations lodged against me were shared with the Chicago Park District team during a thorough process that consisted of four formal interviews and several informal discussions with various members of the Park District team” before he got the new job at the city’s parks, Cummings wrote.

Cummings wrote that he had been treated as if he were guilty of the accusations by the media — and “apparently also by would-be colleagues.”

Still, Cummings wrote, he decided to pull out because “I recognize the allegations made against me and the media reports about them could cause a distraction for the Park District administration, staff and board. I feel that would make it difficult for me to be effective serving as the General Counsel at this time.”

Park District officials released Escareño’s immediate response to Cummings. In it, she wrote Cummings that “we mutually agreed that you will not be able to effectively serve in the role of General Counsel of the Chicago Park District. Therefore, we agree with and accept your decision to withdraw your name from consideration as reflected in your letter and do so without comments on any other statements in the letter.”

The dispute over Cummings created fresh controversy at the Park District, where Escareño was recruited less than two years ago to bring about reforms after WBEZ revealed widespread accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct against female lifeguards at the city’s beaches and pools. In 2021, the lifeguard scandal led then-Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to bring in Escareño and Hamilton in place of longtime CEO Michael Kelly and politically connected Board President Avis LaVelle.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman Show a month ago, Escareño said officials had thoroughly vetted Cummings’ background when they picked him and she expressed full confidence in him.

In the pending lawsuit, plaintiff Michelle Ozuruigbo, who is Black, directed many of her strongest accusations against Cummings, who also is Black, saying he repeatedly used “racial slurs and other inappropriate comments” in workplace conversations with her.

Cummings was placed on administrative leave a year ago by the city of Evanston, but soon returned to work after an investigation into the matter by outside counsel. City officials originally declined to release the investigative report, but they gave a copy to WBEZ on Wednesday, after this story was published.

The outside counsel concluded, “Ms. Ozuruigbo’s complaints of discrimination, retaliation, and harassment are not substantiated.” But the report, issued to top Evanston officials on Aug. 29, 2022, said Ozuruigbo did not agree to be interviewed at the time.

On Tuesday, in his letter to the top Chicago parks officials, Cummings said there was “no proof of wrongdoing because the claims are unsubstantiated” and predicted “a speedy resolution to the litigation and the restoration of my reputation.”

Cummings noted that the Chicago Park District board approved his appointment as general counsel on June 14 — and that he and the city of Evanston were only served with the lawsuit “weeks later.”

The complaint was first filed in April in Cook County Circuit Court, and Cummings was served on July 5, records show.

The case has been moved to federal court, where attorneys for Evanston filed a motion to dismiss last week.

Evanston officials had announced that Cummings would be leaving their city government on Friday, after more than two years as general counsel for the suburb. Before he started working in Evanston, Cummings worked for the Chicago Transit Authority and the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

According to records obtained by WBEZ, Chicago Park District officials identified Cummings as their top choice two months ago.

The documents show four high-ranking Park District officials were part of the hiring process: Escareño chief of staff Joan Coogan, Human Resources Director Argentene Hrysikos, Interim Inspector General Alison Perona and board chief of staff Katie Ellis. They first “narrowed down the resumes to a group of about 10 through consultation with” Escareño and Hamilton. After conducting interviews with applicants, three finalists sat for “final interviews” with Escareño and Hamilton.

Cummings “had an additional touch point with the President and CEO” and another interview with Board Vice President Modesto Valle, according to a June 9 memo to the board members from Ellis announcing Cummings as their selection.

Last month, Escareño told the Sun-Times that Cummings’ record had been carefully reviewed. “We know that he is going to be a strong candidate for the Park District,” she said at the time. “We are going to welcome him in the near future.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.

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