The entrance to City of Chicago Department of Water Management located on the fourth floor of the building at 333 South State Street in Chicago on July 7, 2017.
City emails newly obtained by the Tribune cast light on the scope and offensiveness of racist, sexist and anti-gay slurs by politically connected supervisors at the top levels of the Chicago water department.
An image of a Ku Klux Klan "scarecrow" amid a watermelon field, a picture of a naked woman on a beach and off-color comments about gay people found their way into inboxes between early 2013 and April — a month before an investigation of the emails led to high-ranking officials losing their jobs at the Department of Water Management.
The emails, among nearly 1,300 provided by the city in response to a request under the Illinois open records law, include more overtly sexist and anti-black messages than those in an earlier, more limited batch obtained by the Tribune that also contained anti-Islamic insults. And the new emails for the first time reveal homophobic statements.
They also show that they were sent and received during a years-long period without any sign that supervisors, including recently ousted department Commissioner Barrett Murphy, did anything to quash the troubling chatter. And in at least one case, Murphy forwarded an offensive email to another department employee.
Many of the emails obtained by the Tribune go to the heart of an ongoing investigation by the city’s inspector general. The original sender of many of them is former district superintendent Paul Hansen, the son of a onetime alderman whose political connections go back to the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. In one 2015 email not long after the elections for City Council and mayor, Hansen boasts of his ability to "swing elections."
That was sent to Murphy, whose City Hall connections also date back to the Daley years but grew under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor and Chicago first lady Amy Rule are friends with Murphy and his wife, Lynn Lockwood, the onetime chairman and treasurer of one of Emanuel’s political funds. Murphy also received many of the racist, sexist and homophobic emails.
For Emanuel, the scandal raises issues he’d rather put behind him as he starts to gear up to make a bid for a third term in office in the 2019 elections. And it comes with risks of political peril among key groups of voters that he has worked hard to cultivate: women, gays and African-Americans.
Emanuel has tried to restore his reputation in the city’s historically vote-rich African-American community, after the 2015 release of a police dash-cam video of a white police officer shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times.
The mayor also has toiled to put an end to clout at City Hall. But the political connections of the supervisors involved in the email controversy harken back to the era when Donald Tomczak controlled the water department that became a focus of a 2006 federal corruption trial. Emanuel first ran for Congress during the Tomczak era, and political troops loyal to Tomczak helped the mayor win his first elected office. And Murphy, Hansen and other members of the group show up on a clout list presented at the federal corruption trial held 11 years ago.
Emanuel has taken steps to address the email controversy, starting in May when he appointed Randy Conner, an African American, to lead the department after the resignations of Murphy, Hansen and deputy commissioner William Bresnahan. Attempts to reach all three for comment were unsuccessful.
At the time of their resignations, mayoral spokesman Adam Collins said the mayor acted "quickly and decisively" by asking for Murphy’s resignation after learning of what was then an 8-month-old probe into the emails by city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. That investigation started as a review of emails about gun deals tied to Hansen that ultimately led to the discovery of the offensive emails.
In early June, after those initial resignations, the Tribune obtained emails sent by Hansen that included racially insensitive, anti-Islamic and sexist messages, and the department’s newest commissioner announced that all managers and supervisors in his department would be provided with additional training on federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations designed to prevent discrimination in the workplace
In late June, Thomas J. Durkin, the general foreman of plumbers, and John "Jack" Lee Jr., a district superintendent, were placed on administrative leave pending disciplinary decisions. They have since resigned, according to a department spokesman. Attempts to reach Durkin and Lee for comment were unsuccessful.
A week after they were placed on leave, a federal lawsuit was filed alleging that African-American employees of the Chicago water department routinely were denied promotions, subjected to racial slurs and sexually harassed because of their race.
In response to questions about the latest emails obtained by the Tribune, Emanuel spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier said the mayor "acted swiftly" to show his intolerance for the behavior and that "the folks implicated have been removed." She said he backs efforts by the new commissioner to step up equal employment training for department managers and supervisors. "Finally, the move to take immediate action is completely consistent with the mayor’s efforts to eliminate clout at City Hall so that city employees are hired based on what they know, not who they know," Breymaier added.
One jarring example of a racist email was forwarded from Hansen to Murphy in July 2014. It was titled "Watermelon Protection" and included an image that depicted a scarecrow, dressed in a white KKK robe and pointed hood, amid a field of watermelons. "I don’t understand," Hansen stated in his message to Murphy.
Another racially insensitive email dates back to February 2013, when Hansen was replying to an email that Murphy first forwarded to him. The original message concerned an "urgent request" from ComEd to stop work near an alternate power line serving schools, a fire station and senior citizen homes until the main line was fixed so those facilities wouldn’t lose their electricity feed if it were accidentally damaged.
In response, Hansen wrote: "I think the only thing that the line does not feed is the center for the severely challenged negro midgets, you know the place, its where we hired all those laborers from 7 years ago." Murphy then forwarded that message to another department employee.
Even an August 2015 note from Murphy describing an equation for calculating the circumference of a circle drew a convoluted, racially charged attempt at humor from Hansen.
Hansen’s message referred to the sex organs of white and black men, Caitlyn Jenner, Bill Cosby, a Confederate flag, and Dorothy and the Tin Man. Within minutes, Hansen then forwarded the same distasteful message to Durkin, whose response included: "I’ll have to get back to you with my answer after I discuss this with the All Powerful OZ."
Hansen also distributed emails with an anti-gay tenor, including a February 2013 reply to Murphy, who in oversized letters noted that the Gay Pride festival and parade would be split over two weekends. It also was sent to Bresnahan.
One minute later, Hansen replied it meant someone might be absent from work and would need an "inflatable doughnut on the chair" when he returned.
Hansen in October 2015 sent Murphy a link to a YouTube video titled "Redneck Homemade Bikini Contest." The video depicts several scantily clad women on a wooden stage with a male emcee kicking of the contest by saying, "Here she is guys … let’s hear it."
Hansen in March 2014 forwarded to Durkin, Lee and Bresnahan a joke that spares few in its offensiveness. It refers to a "world’s shortest essay contest" held for Texas teens that had to include elements of religion, royalty, racism, disability and homosexuality. The "winning" essay read: "My God," cried the Queen, "That one-legged n——- is a queer." Lee later responded, "I’m crying."
The emails obtained by the Tribune show that as recently as April, Hansen was receiving offensive emails. An April message sent to Hansen referred to "HETEROSEXUAL MALE PRIDE DAY!"
It makes that declaration after showing photographs of steaks grilling, beer taps and a naked woman, and is preceded by this introduction: "To all of my friends who are tired of taking a BACK SEAT to gays, lesbians, homosexuals, trans genders, women soldiers, bra burners, female boy scouts, women libbers, tree huggers, and eco-commie-environ-freaks, the looney left, Greens, social justice warriors and worse of all — those f———- Democrats!"
One email was sent by a deputy human resources commissioner in October 2014 to several water department supervisors, including Murphy, who was first deputy commissioner at the time. It suggested they should take part in "respectful workplace" training on the issues of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
"Although (the Department of Human Resources) has not made this training mandatory," it states, "there are several reasons that each supervisory employee should receive this training."
The emails also show that Murphy often forwarded to his wife various news summaries, including one in August 2015 where Emanuel announced city worker health care benefits will cover gender reassignment services. "What the……," Murphy commented.
Murphy’s connections to City Hall predate the current mayor. He worked for Daley in multiple capacities, including in the mayor’s office, and first started at the water department in 2004, when Tomczak reigned.
During the 2006 trial of Robert Sorich, Daley’s patronage chief, a once-secret clout list with names of politically connected people seeking jobs and their sponsors was entered into evidence. Murphy’s name appears on the list as the sponsor for one person seeking a job.
Murphy gained influence under Emanuel, who promoted him to first deputy commissioner in 2011 during the early months of his administration. In April 2016, Emanuel appointed him commissioner of the department — a position that proved relatively short lived because of the email scandal that surfaced in May.
Hansen, son of former longtime Ald. Bernie Hansen, 44th, also appears on the clout list as someone who sought a promotion.
During the trial of Sorich, prosecutors charged that Daley administration officials handed out jobs, promotions and overtime work to those who campaigned for Daley and his allies. Sorich was convicted for his role in a hiring fraud scheme to rig interviews and falsify documents.
Hansen, in one water department email sent to Murphy in March 2015, boasted of his political prowess in the context of a recently concluded City Council race on the Northwest Side. "I told you I could swing elections," Hansen wrote.
Other water department email senders and recipients who showed up on the clout list include Durkin. The sponsor listed for Durkin was Tomczak, who was sent to prison after pleading guilty in 2005 to commanding a political army of patronage workers and taking almost $400,000 in payoffs from companies that wanted business from the city’s corrupt Hired Truck Program.