Mayor Lori Lightfoot blocked a deal the Chicago Park District made with an Italian American group to allow a Christopher Columbus statue to be displayed in a parade and made obscene remarks aimed at government lawyers during a contentious meeting, a high-ranking lawyer alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The lawsuit, filed by former Chicago Park District deputy general counsel George Smyrniotis against the city and Lightfoot, is closely related to another case brought by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans against the Park District after Lightfoot removed Columbus statues from the city.
In his lawsuit, Smyrniotis alleges he was told by Timothy King, then the district’s top lawyer, and then-superintendent Michael Kelly that they wanted the lawsuit over the statues settled “as soon as possible.”
Smyrniotis alleges he then worked with lawyers for the Italian Americans to make a deal. As part of negotiations, the group wanted to display the Columbus status in its annual Columbus parade last fall and proposed putting the statue last in the parade and covered until the end, according to Smyrniotis’ lawsuit.
King approved the request, according to the suit, because the Park District thought it would generate goodwill with the Italian Americans.
Park District lawyers and the Italian Americans group were also negotiating a deal to remove the statue from the city permanently.
When Lightfoot learned about the plan, Smyrniotis alleges in his lawsuit, she threatened to pull the permit for the parade and ordered Park District officials to attend a hastily called Zoom meeting.
At the meeting, Smyrniotis alleges, Lightfoot “proceeded to berate and defame” the lawyers and asked them, “Where did you go to law school? Did you even go to law school? Do you even have a law license?”
Lightfoot told them that they had to submit their pleadings to a city lawyer for approval and were told “not to do a f------ thing with that statute without my approval.”
“Get that f------ statue back before noon tomorrow or I am going to have you fired,” Lightfoot said, according to the complaint.
Lightfoot also made obscene comments to Smyrniotis and King, according to the lawsuit, which alleges she called them “d----” and asked, “What the f--- were you thinking?”
“You make some kind of secret agreement with Italians. ... You are out there stroking your d---- over the Columbus statue, I am trying to keep Chicago police officers from being shot and you are trying to get them shot,” Lightfoot said, according to the complaint. “My d--- is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest d--- in Chicago.”
Smyrniotis asserts the alleged comments defamed him by imputing that he lacked the ability to perform his job duties. He resigned from the Park District last month, according to the lawsuit. King has also since left the Park District.
In response to a request for a statement, a Law Department spokeswoman said, “The city has not yet been served with a complaint and will have no further comment as the matter is now in litigation.”
The lawsuit by Smyrniotis is just the latest fallout over Lightfoot’s July 2020 decision to remove Columbus statues from Chicago’s public places.
The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Park District last July asserting that the district violated a deal signed in 1973 to display the Columbus statue in Little Italy when it took down the statue in Summer 2020.
Lightfoot has said she ordered the removal of Columbus statues after activists forcibly attempted to remove the prominent statue of Columbus in Grant Park, leading to violent clashes between police and protesters.
Nearly a week later, Lightfoot took down Columbus statues in Grant Park and Little Italy. Lightfoot later removed a lesser-known statue in the South Chicago neighborhood.
Enrico Mirabelli, attorney for the Italian Americans, said he believes Smyrniotis’ allegations strengthen his case.
“Presuming the mayor has been accurately quoted, her comments give proof to the claim that she has wrongfully interfered with my client’s contract with the Chicago Park District in a degree that is unprecedented,” Mirabelli said.
Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said he’s “literally outraged that someone in her position would ever use words like that to refer to any group of individuals.”
“When will it end with the disrespect?” Onesti said, referring to the mayor’s alleged comments as “grotesque.”
Columbus has been condemned by activists around the country who point to the Italian explorer’s mistreatment of Indigenous people after he landed in the Americas in 1492.
Many Italian Americans prize the statues of the explorer as an expression of their mainstream American identity.
Lightfoot initially resisted calls to take down Columbus statues. Comparing the debate over Columbus statues to the same argument over monuments to Confederate Army figures being removed in other cities, Lightfoot said she favors acting “to not try to erase history, but to embrace it full-on.”
But she ordered the removals after the unrest at Grant Park.
That lawsuit claims that a Columbus statue committee paid the Park District more than $10,000 in 1973 “for the purpose of maintaining in perpetuity” the Columbus statue.
Initially, the lawsuit did not name Lightfoot or Chicago as defendants but the Italian Americans committee recently argued that the mayor should be added because of her actions ordering the statue’s removal, which a judge granted. It also alleges that she has continued to interfere with the contract.
After Lightfoot removed the Columbus statues, she created a review process for controversial city monuments that she said would be part of “a racial healing and historical reckoning project.”
But more than a year and a half later, the city’s monuments commission has yet to issue its final report and recommendations, leaving the conversation in a state of limbo even though it was originally supposed to be done by December 2020.
City officials have said they expect the committee to finish its work in the first quarter of 2022.
Last February, the mayor’s commission on monuments flagged statues of Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley, as well as a Benjamin Franklin statue, a police memorial tied to the Haymarket Riot and a statue of Leif Erikson at Humboldt Park, as potentially problematic, but did not make final recommendations about what should happen.