[Click above to embiggen: Carla Burkhart and her Thundercats-loving attorney Joshua Feagans have lost their SLAPP in DuPage County.]
Something that all conservatives need to start paying more attention to are SLAPPs: strategic litigation against public participation. These are lawsuits that Democrats file against people and groups who expose corruption in public bodies. There has been a resurgence in SLAPPs in recent years, as the Left increasingly uses this type of “lawfare” as a way of silencing the public and taking away people’s First Amendment Rights to Petition government for change and redress of grievances. The goal of a SLAPP is to make people afraid of writing about (or otherwise speaking out about) bad things that public bodies do and to intimidate watchdog groups so that people are too afraid of being sued to engage in the political process or use the Freedom of Information Act to uncover wrongdoing by public bodies.
Essentially, Democrats have figured out that to get away with doing more terrible things, they need to go after and silence people who figure out they are doing terrible things. SLAPPs are a weapon they use to pervert the legal system and bully people into shutting up and allowing Democrats to do whatever they want with taxpayer money in public bodies.
Megan Fox and I were hit with a SLAPP lawsuit in 2014 — which we prevailed in — by a woman named Bridget Bittman, who just happens to be heiress to the Comiskey family, which used to own the White Sox sportsball team up until the 1950s. Comiskey Park was named after her family. Bittman’s maternal grandmother Dorothy Comiskey Rigney was the last female owner of the White Sox; she married one of the baseball players that she owned, John Rigney. Megan and I encountered Bittman, the Comiskey granddaughter, in the fall of 2013 when she worked as the public spokesman for the Orland Park Public Library. This was the library that Megan and I discovered was covering-up sex crimes for years, including men openly masturbating at computers, sexually harassing women, stalking female employees in the stacks, accosting children sexually, and even accessing child pornography (with library staff knowing it kept happening, but choosing not to call the police as they were required by law to do). Bittman lied to the media about what was going on, claiming that no sex crimes were happening. We also discovered that library employees had been spending thousands of dollars at a local jewelry store buying gold for board members and even taking trustees out for $500 steak dinners to ensure that the board always did what library staff wanted and the sex crimes were kept covered up.
Megan and I used FOIA requests to find the library’s internal documents that revealed that library staff had for years deliberately covered up incidents like this. We had to take the library and the Village of Orland Park to chancery court to force them to give us some documents that they tried to keep hidden. The American Library Association (ALA), a group funded by George Soros, in fact instructed libraries to cover up incidents of sexual activity happening in libraries and to evade FOIA production by never writing anything down about anything bad that happens in a public library.
After we broke the story, former female library employees came forward to tell the public about how — when they complained about sexual activity and harassment happening in their work area — they were told by library management to either look the other way and ignore it or quit their jobs. The Orland Park Chief of Police, Timothy J. McCarthy, then engaged in roughly two years of abuse and harassment aimed at intimidating, harassing, and threatening us to try to scare us away so we would stop reporting on the sex crimes that had been allowed to fester in the library on his watch. For some reason, the government of Orland Park wanted to keep allowing child pornography to be accessed in that library and for men to continue to be allowed to use the library for sex. SOMEONE powerful in Orland Park WANTED this to keep happening and Police Chief McCarthy appears to have been tasked with threatening/frightening/harassing whistleblowers to keep Orland Park’s secrets hidden.
We document everything we uncovered in our investigation and everything that McCarthy and the Orland Park Police did to us in our book, SHUT UP! The Bizarre War that One Public Library Waged Against the First Amendment. One of the worst things that Orland Park did was to put library employee Bridget Bittman up to suing us in federal court with a SLAPP lawsuit. That was supposed to shut us up and scare us away. Her intent was to restrict our future speech and to make us never write about the library and its terrible employees again…so that Orland Park could continue to hide what had been allowed to keep happening there. That plan backfired because we not only prevailed when the SLAPP was dismissed but there’s now a 666-page book all about Timothy J. McCarthy, the Orland Park Police, the Orland Park Public Library, and Bridget Bittman’s SLAPP.
I hope that John Kraft and Kirk Allen, who run the Edgar County Watchdogs and their site Illinois Leaks, write their own book about the SLAPP that Carla Burkhart and Joshua Feagans (from the slimeball law firm Griffin Williams, LLP) filed against them…in what was very similar to the attempt by Bridget Bittman and Orland Park to silence Megan and me. At their heart, SLAPPs are shakedown efforts that should be viewed as a kind of extortion racket. Only disreputable attorneys file SLAPP suits because these attorneys know from the beginning that they will not prevail in the suit. The point of the litigation is not to win…but instead just to scare a reporter or community activist into ending whatever First Amendment protected activity that reporter/activist is engaged in. In our case, Megan and I uncovered years and years of wrongdoing at a public library that the Village of Orland Park wanted to keep hidden from the public; so, a public employee was encouraged to file a SLAPP against us in federal court to scare us away and make us agree to never write about those crimes again (if the lawsuit was dropped, of course). With the Edgar County Watchdogs, Burkhart and her sniveling attorney Feagans wanted Kraft and Allen to stop writing about the College of DuPage scandal, where the Watchdogs were instrumental in busting that public body for years and years of wasteful spending. The Watchdogs uncovered documents showing that Burkhart was awarded an architect’s contract for a large sum of money when Burkhart is not in fact an architect (and should have never signed an architect’s contract). Other questions were raised about the awarding of no-bid contracts that Burkhart appeared to benefit from, as well as Burkhart’s chummy relationship with disgraced College of DuPage officials who now appear to be under FBI investigation.
Burkhart went to the Griffin Williams firm the same way that someone would go to an ambulance chasing attorney with meritless medical claims against someone or another. SLAPPS are shakedowns. Feagans is one of the worst attorneys I have ever seen in my life. This is a grown man who maintained a Facebook page where he advertised his love of Thundercats (a line of hunky toys similar to He-Man in the 1980s, with muscular cat/human hybrids that fought evil in their underpants). If you review the filings in Burkhart’s SLAPP, you will see that Feagans’ work is poorly written, emotional, sarcastic, and unprofessional. In other words, exactly what you would expect from a grown man in his 30s who is still obsessed with Thundercats.
Yesterday (7/29/16), a three hour hearing was held in DuPage County court where Feagans’ nonsense was picked apart verbally by a judge who was none-too-pleased with his time being wasted by Thundercats-loving Feagans and SLAPP-happy Burkhart. The judge completely dismissed the SLAPP. He ripped this bogus lawsuit to shreds. From what I understand, Feagans cried like a small child after that happened. No doubt, he went home to his Thundercats collection in his room, told his wife he needed “Alone Time,” stripped down to his Underoos, and confided in Lion-O or Panthro or maybe even Mumm-Ra that life is just not fair and that he can’t ever win. Sword of Omens and Eye of Thundera, why is being a lawyer so tough and beyond the scope of my abilities?
Burkhart is pretty typical for a SLAPPer. She appears to have the money to burn on a lawsuit she knew she wouldn’t win, thinking that she could spend a few thousand to hire Feagans to essentially extort the Watchdogs. She just had to find a law firm dumb enough to sign her as a client on an un-winnable case. Perhaps she came across Feagans’ Facebook page, saw that he was a grown male attorney still really into children’s toys from the 1980s, and figured: BINGO! I’ve found my BOZO!
Feagans and the Griffin Williams firm then filed this bogus lawsuit for her…with the expectation that the Watchdogs would not be able to afford an attorney to fight it for them. The scary thing about SLAPPs is that they are wickedly effective when the target of the SLAPP does not have the means to hire attorneys for a defense and is too afraid to fight the suit him or herself pro se in court. What usually seems to happen is that someone is SLAPPed and then the shady attorney for the SLAPPer makes an offer that the SLAPP will go away and be withdrawn if only the target would agree to never talk about or write about the SLAPPer again. The SLAPPer’s slimeball attorney engages in extortion/shakedown here: if you don’t want to go to the trouble of defending yourself in court, then you must tear down everything you wrote about the SLAPPer and agree to restrict your future speech and never write about the SLAPPer or the bad things she did again. Otherwise, you will have to spend years and thousands of dollars fighting in court to make this bogus lawsuit go away.
See what they do here? If you catch something horrible happening with a public entity like the College of DuPage or Village of Orland Park and you expose it, to punish you someone connected in some way to that public entity will file a SLAPP against you. That SLAPP is never intended to survive a motion to dismiss or ever enter into discovery. These lawsuits never make it to summary judgment, let alone a jury. The purpose of the SLAPP is just to scare you, make you wish you never wrote about the public body or spoke out against it, and then you are supposed to beg the SLAPPer to make the lawsuit go away…with the promise that you will never get involved in local politics or participate in government activism in any way again. The SLAPP is designed to teach you a lesson, and that lesson is: do not mess with Democrats and what they are doing with taxpayer money because you will be sued if you get in the way of that gravy train.
The SLAPPers are usually people with money to burn or people who are in some way being funded by either the public entities themselves or a lobbying group that benefits from the public entities continuing to engage in wrongdoing. In our case with Bridget Bittman, she was not only the Comiskey heiress (with the resources of someone whose grandmother owned a major league sportsball team) but she also received funding from members of the American Library Association to pay for her SLAPP against us, since the ALA had a vested interest in seeing us silenced (as they never wanted anyone to ever hear about things that the ALA does to cover up sex crimes in public libraries). With the Edgar County Watchdogs, Carla Burkhart wanted to silence John Kraft and Kirk Allen because she (and likely others connected to the College of DuPage scandal) didn’t want the public asking questions about all of the no-bid contracts and other shady dealings that the Watchdogs were exposing.
The thinking seems to be that if a SLAPP is targeted at a reporter/activist that the SLAPP will be so scary that the investigations stop, people become too afraid to write about the wrongdoing, and the people who engaged in whatever terrible things were being written about get away with whatever they did wrong. I wish that SLAPPers would come forward and at some point be honest with the public about what goes through their minds. Do they run a cost/benefit analysis and come to the conclusion that investing a few thousand dollars to hire a clown like Joshua Feagans (Thundercats, HO!) on the chance that the SLAPP could work is worth that roll of the dice?
Did Carla Burkhart, like Bridget Bittman before her, really believe that filing a SLAPP would make reporters give up on a story of great public interest? It amazes me that an attorney like Feagans is allowed to keep practicing law. In a just world, a lawyer like him should lose his license for not advising Burkhart that her lawsuit was meritless and that filing it would only be wasting the court’s time because the First Amendment precludes silencing reporters who are reporting on wrongdoing that involved a public body. I do not understand why the State of Illinois allows Joshua Feagans to continue being an attorney when he and his firm Griffin Williams file SLAPP lawsuits that they know have no hope of succeeding. He and everyone at his firm who signed off on this should be disbarred.
In my opinion, there should be a One Strike and You Are Out rule when it comes to SLAPPs. Feagans should not be given a second chance. If you read any of his filings, you will see within the first paragraph that he is too immature to be practicing law alongside real grown-ups. And that’s even without looking into his Facebook love of Thundercats and other children’s toys.
As for Burkhart, she has 35 days to refile and start this whole process again. Efforts are underway at the federal level to create a national Anti-SLAPP law that would severely punish SLAPPers for abusing the court system and using it as a weapon in the way that Burkhart and Bittman did. I hope those efforts succeed. We cover Bittman’s SLAPP in exhausting detail in our book SHUT UP!, which I hope legislators read as yet another firsthand account of a SLAPP and its intended purpose of silencing criticism of public bodies and discouraging participation in government.
© 2016, Kevin DuJan. All rights reserved.
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