A status hearing to resolve motions in the Officer Rasul Freelain civil rights case against the village of Oak Park and former sergeant Dina Vardal took a nasty turn Thursday, with both sides accusing the other of unethical behavior.
Freelain’s lawyer, Robert Robertson, insisted that Police Chief Rick Tanksley, Deputy Chief Anthony Ambrose and Vardal had all lied in sworn court depositions. The village’s defense counsel, Stephen Miller, called those accusations “totally, utterly false” and told Judge Manish Shah that a libel lawsuit was being considered.
Shah, who noted that both sides “ratcheted up the rhetoric,” ruled on several pending motions before allowing the opposing attorneys to make statements.
The judge denied two of Robertson’s motions, including his request for sanctions against the village for allegedly providing false documents. The judge agreed with Miller that, under local federal rules, Robertson should have expressed his concerns about the discrepancy between what the village purported to be a document reflecting Vardal’s disciplinary record but which in fact did not reflect the actual disciplinary outcome.
Shah also denied Robertson’s motion seeking to extend the discovery period to allow him to depose 17 additional witnesses, ruling that enough people had been deposed and that the case must go forward without any further tangents or detours.
“This case is 2½ years old,” the judge noted, calling the village’s motion for summary judgment a “useful mechanism to focus the plaintiff on specific issues.”
Shah did deny a motion by the village to make Robertson and Freelain pay for the expenses of challenging the sanctions motion. The judge called Robertson’s motion “ill-advised” but not sanctionable.
At the center of the controversy is the contention by Freelain and Robertson that village officials provided false and misleading documents for use during several court depositions over the summer.
Specifically, the village produced a list — referred to as Exhibit 11 — of 22 disciplinary instances in Vardal’s record. Of those, Vardal was disciplined for 11 total instances of misconduct.
At issue is the final disciplinary matter, the alleged battery of Freelain by Vardal on May 19, 2012. The document defense lawyers showed Freelain and others during deposition testimony clearly indicates she received a three-day suspension.
However, after being accused of providing false documentation, the village produced documents showing that Vardal had appealed the three-day suspension and that it was reduced to a single day by Tanksley. Robertson accused Tanksley, Ambrose and Vardal of lying in their depositions.
Miller called Robertson’s accusations “shameless” and “totally and utterly false.”
“This is very serious,” he said. “I believe [Robertson] has committed libel per se and it is actionable. An apology will not cure this.”
Miller also accused Robertson of playing to the media. Robertson’s tactics, he argued, are “intended to put pressure on the village.”
Shah said that “neither side should be putting things in the record for media consumption,” but denied a request by Miller to order Robertson to show cause for how he concluded Tanksley and Ambrose were lying.
Robertson replied, “This is not some media grandstanding. I sat through hours of depositions after being presented with a document that stated [Vardal received] a three day suspension.”
He noted that Vardal herself repeatedly testified under oath that she received a three day suspension and served that three-day suspension.
“She knew the entire time it was one day,” Robertson said.
Deposition excerpts released by the village’s law firm in fact show Vardal herself testified repeatedly under oath that she received and served a three-day suspension, and that she denied she ever appealed the three-day suspension.
Shah called the discrepancy between the documents related to the resolution of Vardal’s Dec. 2012 discipline “a legitimate concern for plaintiff to have.”
But he reiterated his ruling that that concern “was not properly vetted through a discussion [between the attorneys],” adding, “I haven’t ruled whether anyone is lying.”
Miller said outside the courtroom that Robertson had only to have asked and he would have produced the documents showing Vardal’s appeal but that he never asked.
Robertson said afterwards that he was the aggrieved party, and that “I will not be intimidated off this case by any threats of a libel action. Truth is an absolute defense and I never apologize for something when I did absolutely nothing wrong.”