[Above: Carla Burkhart and her attorney Joshua “Josh” Feagans filed a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) to punish her critics for rightfully reporting on her no-bid contracts with the College of DuPage, which were awarded to her as “architecture” contracts when admittedly Burkhart is not an architect. Though many news outlets reported on Burkhart’s corruption and misdeeds, she and Feagans elected only to target certain critics for SLAPP intimidation and retaliation.]
* A SLAPP is a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” designed to silence critics of a public official and chill people’s First Amendment Rights. It is essentially using a court and abusing the legal system as an intimidation tool against one’s targeted enemies.
* Criticism of public officials is part of Free Speech and vital to our democratic system of government; the Right to Petition government bodies includes the right to publicly criticize public officials for their wrongdoing. This is what separates the United States from monarchies and totalitarian dictatorships that forbid such criticism under penalty of law and threat of government reprisal.
* Carla Burkhart filed a SLAPP lawsuit against the Edgar County Watchdogs and other select critics in January 2016 to silence and punish those targeted for their First Amendment protected speech. Burkhart is represented in her SLAPP by attorney Joshua Feagans of the lackluster firm Griffin Williams. Feagans’ Facebook page boasts that he enjoys watching Thundercats cartoons on the tee-vee.
* This is a Thundercat, in case you don’t know or weren’t around in the 1980s (it is not normal for grown men in professional fields to advertise that they are still into Thundercats as they approach middle age):
I’m having a great time studying up on all the bizarre twists and turns in Carla Burkhart’s asinine SLAPP lawsuit against the Edgar County Watchdogs and other critics of Burkhart’s outrageous no-bid contracts with the College of DuPage. This is a great case to learn from because it’s such a blatant SLAPP. It is perfect material for Tea Party minded people to read and investigate because SLAPPs are one of the weapons that corrupt public officials (and their reprehensible Thundercats-loving attorneys) use to take away the public’s First Amendment rights and deprive Americans of our liberty. You can read more about SLAPPs here.
I introduced you to this particular Burkhart/Feagans SLAPP several days ago and have been reading various articles written by The Chicago Tribune and other publications on Burkhart and the various open state investigations into her conduct. The Caucus Blog, which follows goings-on in the Illinois statehouse, posted a terrific summary that you should read at least three times to let all the information sink in:
Without receiving a single competitive bid, the College of DuPage has paid a member of its foundation board more than $630,000 to design and install signs for the school over the past four years — with much of the work made possible through a contract that references her experience as an architect.
That’s where it gets tricky.
Foundation board member Carla Burkhart is not an architect. Her company, Herricane Graphics, does not provide architectural services.
A Tribune analysis of records from Burkhart’s work at the school since 2011 raises questions about how Illinois’ largest community college awards contracts, especially to vendors who serve on the board of the College of DuPage Foundation, the school’s private fundraising arm. Ten of the foundation’s 22 board members work for companies with financial ties to the college, according to documents obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.
After questions from the Tribune, the chairwoman of the school’s board of trustees, Erin Birt, recently ordered a review of contracts between the school and its foundation members. The publicly funded college does not have a policy regarding contracts with foundation board members.
The college’s dealings with Burkhart also have prompted a state investigation.
The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation recently filed a document with an administrative court against Burkhart, asking her to address the claim that she falsely represented herself as an architect when she signed a contract with the College of DuPage in 2012. Under state law, it’s a misdemeanor to portray oneself as an architect without a license.
The Caucus Blog then referred its readers to a Tribune article from March 2015 which states definitively that the College of DuPage awarded Carla Burkhart $630,000 worth of no-bid projects. According to the Tribune, the fact that Burkhart knowingly and intentionally signed an architecture contract when she is not an architect meant that she was able to evade the competitive bidding process that she would have been required to participate in if she was signing any other contract than an architecture contract. The Tribune noted that, “promoting the contract as architectural was significant; in Illinois, architecture contracts do not have to be publicly bid. Signage design, by comparison, is typically subject to the competitive bidding process, which is intended to give all qualified vendors a shot at winning a job.” The work that Carla Burkhart did for the College of DuPage was signage design, not architecture. Dun, dun, dun!
Other interesting nuggets from the Tribune article include:
* A man named Ben Bagby, the State of Illinois’ procurement officer for higher education, saw danger in awarding so much money in no-bid contracts to Carla Burkhart and her company Herricane Graphics, noting that making signs is pretty run-of-the-mill work and that the College of DuPage should have looked into who else was out there that could have performed the sign-making tasks besides Burkhart (who is a member of the College of DuPage Foundation’s board).
* Other area sign-makers would have liked to bid for the work that was awarded to Burkhart in no-bid contracts, but they were not given the opportunity to bid for the work since the contracts were improperly handed to Burkhart without a bidding process.
* The contract that Burkhart signed with the College of DuPage names Herricane Graphics as the project’s architect and over the next 25 subsequent pages uses the word “architect” 325 times. Again, Burkhart is not an architect. She should have never signed an architect’s contract. She is a sign-maker who should have been made to go through a competitive bidding process before being given a sign-making vendor’s contract if her bid was accepted.
* Burkhart claims that she and Herricane Graphics have been doing work for the College of DuPage since 2003…but the College of DuPage has not been able to find any records to support Burkhart’s claim. They only have records of her doing signage work since 2011, not long before this whole no-bid contract mess began. This makes Burkhart seem like she is lying about how long she has been doing this alleged work. If you think about why she might lie about something like that, you should know that one of the ways her lawyer Joshua Feagans is trying to get her out of trouble is by claiming that Burkhart had a longstanding relationship with the College of DuPage and that such a longstanding relationship would allow the College to forgo a competitive bidding process for the sign work and just award the contract to Burkhart. I am suspicious that Burkhart could very well have told a lie that she was doing projects since 2003 (instead of just since 2011) because going back all the way to 2003 would establish the exact sort of “longstanding relationship” that Burkhart could then use to get her off the hook in terms of the glaring “no-bid contract” situation. If you don’t live in Illinois, you might not be able to see the giant red neon sign flashing LIAR! LIAR! LIAR! with all this…but if you are from Chicagoland it’s pretty transparent what Burkhart seems to be doing here. Burkhart is really starting to remind me of one of the long-lost Gallagher siblings on Showtime’s Shameless…an eager and aggressive (but not especially talented or creative) liar.
* No payments were made to Herricane Graphics prior to 2011, according to the College of DuPage’s financial records. Burkhart didn’t count on people checking records of payment and probably assumed she would get away with lying that “They lost my proposals and contracts for the work prior to 2011!” or “The dog must have ate all those records!” or “There was a fire and the records were written in invisible ink on top of that so even if you found burnt records that were blank this explains it!” or whatever. But, if this contemptible woman and her mysterious company (which has no website, no social media presence, no contact information for prospective clients, etc.) had actually been paid by the College of DuPage from 2003 to 2011, then records would exist for those payments. But there are none. This can mean only one thing: that Carla Burkhart is lying and she never did any business with the College of DuPage as the entity Herricane Graphics before 2011.
* Between July 2012 and November 2013, Herricane Graphics billed more than $300,000 in fees to the College of DuPage because of “change orders.” In case you don’t know what those are, that’s a construction project management term for some change that comes into a project after the initial contract has been signed. To me, this sounds like a really good way to avoid scrutiny and transfer a lot of money from the College of DuPage to Carla Burkhart after the initial contract was executed. Think about it. For whatever reason, the College of DuPage wants to give Burkhart a bunch of money but it also wants to hide it. How can it facilitate this? Easy! Just sign a contract with her for X-amount of money to do A and B. After the ink is dry and the contract is filed, the College of DuPage then starts funneling more money to Burkhart that’s not provided for in the contract by saying it has “change orders” it wants to add to the project after the fact (adding item C for $50,000 extra and item D for $75,000 extra etc.). The College and Burkhart could then just make up numbers for what each change order would cost and add as much as they wanted onto her haul. I think it would be incredibly hard to FOIA those change orders and see if they were legitimate…and anyone who had FOIA-ed the original contract would not automatically be given all the change orders that came after it. The College could hide those unless someone specifically asked to see change orders, which Burkhart and the College of DuPage may have counted on never happening. This is a pretty inventive scam if that’s indeed what the College of DuPage and Burkhart did here. They are a step above the Gallagher family with that one.
* The College of DuPage refused to release the documents that the Tribune FOIA-ed related to Burkhart until the Tribune‘s attorney intervened, most likely threatening a lawsuit in chancery court for FOIA violations. Then, the College of DuPage Foundation hired a “crisis management expert” to handle the fallout from being caught refusing to produce documents. This is incredibly fascinating to me because it’s similar to what the Orland Park Public Library (OPPL) did when Megan Fox and I discovered in their incident reports that the Library had allowed child pornography to be accessed and sex crimes to happen in that building for years and years. The OPPL also refused to produce documents and had to be sued over FOIA violations…AND the Library used a self-styled “crisis manager” to lash out at Megan and me and try to scare us away by telling lies to the media about us. Just like the College of DuPage! Megan and I were also hit with a SLAPP lawsuit of our own from the Library’s “crisis manager” as punishment for investigating the OPPL (but a federal judge dismissed the majority of the counts in that SLAPP last summer). It’s like the College of DuPage and the OPPL read from the same playbook.
* The Tribune found plenty of examples of other colleges in Illinois putting out competitive bid process Requests for Proposal (RFP) packets for signage work. This is bad news for Carla Burkhart, because it shows that it’s not normal for colleges to award contracts for signage work without soliciting competitive bids from multiple vendors. In case you don’t know, a Request for Proposal is like a job posting that an entity such as the College of DuPage would write up stating what work they want to have done, what specifically they need by what date, and other parameters for the project. Then, they are supposed to mail that out to at least X-number of professionals who are qualified to do such work. Those RFPs are then answered with a packet from each vendor stating how much they would charge to do such projects. The College of DuPage would then review all the RFP responses that were submitted and evaluate which would be the best option for the public institution (usually it is the lowest bidder). None of this was done with the $630,000 that was funneled to Carla Burkhart through no-bid sweetheart deal contracts.
* Great Merciful Zeus! Check out this next part from the Tribune article:
At the College of DuPage, however, Burkhart has not faced any competition for the work she has been awarded since at least 2011, even as she billed for more than $630,000 through Herricane and Advantage Sign Installation, another company she owns. Some of those payments in 2011 and early 2012 involved smaller amounts of money that may not have required an open bidding process, but the college said it did not have contracts for those jobs.
On June 2, 2014, Burkhart did submit a proposal to serve as a “construction manager” overseeing several signage projects, though college records indicate it was a no-bid job. The contract — which again refers to Herricane Graphics as the project “architect” — includes all signage work at the college started before June 30, 2016.
Later that month, the board approved $96,000 to Herricane for the future work, though that amount has already increased.
At least one local signmaker argues that Burkhart enjoys an unfair advantage.
“I don’t know how this has been allowed to happen, but I’ve stopped trying to make sense of it,” said Glenn Rebechini, whose company Rebechini Studios has been a subcontractor for signage work for the college. “It’s just beyond reason.”
Now, in case you didn’t notice this earlier, remember that the Tribune‘s lawyers got involved to force the College of DuPage to turn over the records that they were hiding…right before they hired that crisis manager to do damage control. That’s important.
This means that the reporters who started researching this story for the Tribune went to their in-house lawyers and told them what Carla Burkhart was doing and how they thought it was illegal and, thus, newsworthy. The editors at the Tribune would have had to sign-off on the lawyers getting involved to compel production of those documents…and if the lawyers didn’t think that Burkhart was involved in something at the very least suspicious, they would not have helped secure production of those documents. The Tribune editors then reviewed the finished story before it was printed…and I assume that the Tribune lawyers would have read it too, since the lawyers had been involved in obtaining those FOIA documents. The story about Burkhart ran, noting all of the things that the Edgar County Watchdogs had independently reported about Burkhart and the College of DuPage.
So, my question then is…why didn’t Burkhart sue The Chicago Tribune in her SLAPP?
If I had to guess, I would bet it was because her goober of an attorney Joshua Feagans at Griffin Williams didn’t want to go up against the Tribune‘s in-house counsel and all the financial resources of the Tribune‘s parent media company.
Burkhart and Feagans seem to have only sued people they thought either couldn’t afford attorneys or would not be able to find good attorneys fast enough. They seem to have purposely chosen NOT to sue the giant media company with unlimited financial resources in Chicago.
They only sued the Watchdogs and other people that are small potatoes compared to the Tribune…even though the Tribune said everything about Burkhart and her no-bid architecture contract that the Watchdogs and other critics said (and the Tribune‘s meticulously sourced reporting 100% backs up everything that John Kraft and Kirk Allen reported on the Illinois Leaks website).
This is classic behavior in a SLAPP, by the way. It’s textbook, actually. SLAPPers pick their targets with care, looking for people who would be terrified of being sued or unable to mount a defense. The goal of a SLAPP is not to win a lawsuit, but just to frighten (or at least inconvenience if not hamstring) critics and cause them to go silent. Almost all SLAPPs collapse before discovery even begins. Judges either dismiss most of the counts in the SLAPP and neuter it or the SLAPPer withdraws the SLAPP unceremoniously before any depositions are taken or interrogatories are exchanged. The SLAPPer knows that she can’t win the lawsuit and doesn’t intend to incur the expense of discovery…the SLAPPer just wanted to lash out and punish critics for writing about the terrible things that the SLAPPer was doing that warranted public scrutiny.
The odds of the Tribune being silenced by a SLAPP were slim, so it looks like Burkhart and Feagans put their greasy little heads together and chose not to aim the SLAPP at that major newspaper. But, perhaps they thought that John Kraft and Kirk Allen at the Edgar County Watchdogs would be scared of being sued and would then become afraid of ever writing about Carla Burkhart ever again. In my opinion, Burkhart comes across as a complete and total diva who didn’t like the negative spotlight she found herself in and had the bad luck of knowing a disreputable attorney who signed off on filing a lawsuit that will potentially ruin Burkhart as it blows up in her face in the months ahead. Don’t forget that in Illinois we have a Citizen Protection Act that penalizes SLAPPers for attempting to silence the First Amendment rights of their targets.
When studying SLAPPs, I am always curious about the kind of lawyers who think it’s a good idea to file these sorts of meritless pieces of
shit litigation. Joshua Feagans has a publicly-accessible Facebook page, which lists him as a partner at Griffin Williams and a graduate of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, which is one of the lowest-ranked law schools in the country.
Applicants to John Marshall have very low GPAs and very low LSAT scores…and John Marshall apparently accepts just about anyone who applies. If you apply to 10 schools and get rejected by 9, you will still be admitted into John Marshall if you have a pulse and enough in your checking account to pay their tuition. According to US News & World Report, only 35% of John Marshall Law School graduates are even able to find work after completing their studies at this degree farm. It is by all accounts the legal equivalent of going to medical school in an abandoned bus station somewhere in Tijuana, Mexico.
So, the guy Carla Burkhart found to file her SLAPP graduated from a school that most lawyers would not have even considered as a “doomsday last resort safety school” when sending out applications. Feagans also boasts on his Facebook profile that he loves Thundercats.
Now, I am also a child of the 1980s (like Joshua Feagans)…and like him as a boy I had Thundercats toys…but I’m also now a gay man in my late-30s. I no longer list Thundercats amongst my most favorite things in all of the world, not even when go-go dancers dress up as Thundercats in boylesque shows around town (and look amazing doing it). Feagans — who is a partner in a law firm, allegedly, for crying out loud — announces to the world that he loves Hoosiers, Casablanca, Star Wars, Thundercats, Casablanca some more, and The Godfather.
I find it hard to take Feagans seriously as a professional if he still lists a cartoon about anthropomorphic muscular felines running around in form-fitting Underoos as one of his very limited number of favorite “movies” well into his adulthood (and legal career). This makes me question Feagans’ maturity and judgment (on top of his John Marshall diploma making me question his basic competence)…no matter how fabulous Lion-O was to Feagans back in the day (or still is). Here, kitty kitty.
If this isn’t the most ridiculous SLAPP to pop up in a great while, then I don’t know what is. By the Eye of Thundera, it’s got everything. I honestly can’t wait and am counting the days until the attorneys for the Edgar County Watchdogs file their response to this foolishness and make Carla Burkhart and Joshua Feagans look like the shameless clowns they are before the court.
© 2016, Kevin DuJan. All rights reserved.
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