RACINE — The slander suit against Mayor John Dickert has cost the city $100,000.
Attorneys’ bills to the city for the suit amounted to $107,718.74 before insurance kicked in after the $100,000 deductible was reached, according to records of financial transactions released to The Journal Times this week. The Journal Times had filed an open records request asking for the city’s records pertaining to a recent settlement between Dickert and the plaintiff and for financial transactions among all involved parties.
That cost included $92,898.91 for defending Dickert in the slander suit and $14,819.83 for Dickert’s third party complaint against the city asking them to pick up the tab.
The City Council decided last year to cover the costs, citing the state statute of indemnification that requires municipalities to cover legal costs for employees acting in official capacity, unless the court found Dickert was acting otherwise. Then he would have had to pay the city back.
But the suit was settled before the court could rule whether Dickert was acting as a public official or a private citizen when he made the allegedly slanderous comments about former city employee William Bielefeldt while on the radio last year during his mayoral campaign.
“There was no finding by the court on that issue at all,” Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney said Friday. “Since there was no finding, the repayment agreement was not triggered.”
And now the taxpayers of Racine are picking up the $100,000.
That’s the city’s deductible for an employment practices liability case before the insurance company takes over, according to Letteney. He did not have the total cost of the suit as of Friday, noting the case is still open according to online court records.
Dickert declined to comment for this story.
Alderman Greg Helding said it’s “absurd” there’s any question whether Dickert was speaking as mayor when he commented about the city’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, saying he believed Dickert had been acting as an elected official talking about official business.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the suit was brought in the first place because it really wasn’t warranted. The only thing the mayor really did was misstate the gist of an employee’s termination,” he said. “A simple mistake shouldn’t have to cost $100,000 but there were people who wanted to take advantage and try to score political points. It’s a shame they had to do it on the backs of taxpayers.”
Dickert’s attorney Mike Cohen has repeatedly said in the past they believed the suit was filed for political reasons — mentioning former Alderman Eric Marcus — who had been challenging Dickert for his seat at the time. Marcus was subpoenaed for questioning after Bielefeldt said he became aware of Dickert’s radio comments through someone who was initially told by Marcus.
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Alderman Mike Shields believed the mayor had not been in his official capacity and that he should reimburse the city.
“We’ve got to be fair across the board to everybody,” he said. “There’s no free rides for anybody. I sympathize for the mayor, but he wasn’t acting in his official capacity so why should the city foot the bill?”
City Council President Jim Kaplan disagreed.
“Elected officials are in their position 24/7, 365 days a year,” Kaplan said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. Sometimes the cost of doing business is hard to digest.”
Most aldermen declined to comment or could not be reached Friday.
The city had tried to get the suit dismissed, because a notice of claim — which is required before a suit is brought against a municipality or its employees — had not been filed.
Bielefeldt and his attorney Tom Santarelli have repeatedly said he was bringing the suit against Dickert in his personal capacity and that Dickert was not representing the city at the time because he was campaigning for re-election.
Kenosha Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder in March dismissed the mayor’s suit against the city, saying the plaintiff brought the suit against Dickert alone and it’s up to the jury to decide whether Dickert was acting as mayor or a private citizen and whether the comments were slanderous.
But the settlement reached in late April, a week before the jury trial was scheduled to start, left those questions unanswered.
Cohen has previously said the settlement is confidential and did not comment further, other than to say the city was not involved in it and that no payments were made to Bielefeldt.
Released records of financial transactions also did not show any between the city and Bielefeldt or his attorney.
They did reveal invoices from the law firms of Cohen and Attorney Elaine Ekes, who represented the city in the third party complaint, with Cohen charging $265 per hour and Ekes $150 an hour. The funds came out of the City Attorney’s Professional Services account, which was budgeted for $200,000 for 2012.
Correction: This story incorrectly identified aldermen Greg Helding and Jim Kaplan. The error has been corrected.