One of two remaining loose ends from the bitter 2013 mayoral election in North Riverside was tied Dec. 5, when members of a now-defunct local political organization settled a lawsuit with the village’s paramedic service provider, which had claimed it had been libeled.
Details regarding the monetary terms of the settlement have been placed under seal. But members of the former Transparency and Accountability in Politics Party – Rocco DeSantis, Peter Culafic, Marybelle Mandel, Annabelle Downs and Luigi Labellarte — along with Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos, who supported the group’s 2013 election campaign, must publicly apologize to Paramedic Services of Illinois via a half-page newspaper ad that will run for two consecutive weeks.
PSI’s attorney, Brian Holman, confirmed that aspect of the settlement agreement, which apparently stipulates that the ads run in the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark. Both sides agreed to the settlement terms on Dec. 5, avoiding a trial.
“The apology was finalized by both parties and approved by the court,” Holman said.
It’s unclear exactly when the ads will run; Holman surmised that it might be after Jan. 1.
Lawrence Zdarsky, the attorney who represented the defendants, downplayed the terms of the settlement, saying that both sides came away from the settlement talks “agreeing to disagree.”
“They thought they were defamed, but reasonable people will differ,” Zdarsky said. “The plaintiff’s position is the same as it was four years ago, and the defendant’s position is the same as it was four years ago.”
The defendants argued that statements made about PSI’s paramedics on two campaign websites represented protected political speech. Zdarsky called PSI’s lawsuit “frivolous.”
Holman said the terms of the settlement indicated that the court did not agree with Zdarsky’s assessment of his clients’ case.
“If it was frivolous, the appellate court would have accepted [Zdarsky’s] petition,” Holman said. “I disagree with his characterization. I’d say that every ruling went in our favor.”
But a Cook County circuit court judge in January 2015 denied a motion to dismiss the case and it was set for trial the next month. Zdarsky filed an interlocutory appeal with the Illinois Court of Appeals, which refused to hear the case.
In September, the suit was re-filed as a new case in Cook County Circuit Court and it was set for trial call on Dec. 5.
“To both parties’ credit, cooler heads prevailed and they were able to resolve the lawsuit, but neither party has changed their position,” Zdarsky said.
The settlement closes the book on almost four years of litigation which began Feb. 26, 2013 in the midst of a raucous political campaign. A central plank in the platform of the TAP Party was a call to do away with the services of PSI and cross-train North Riverside firefighters to provide paramedic services.
It was a proposal that had been proposed earlier by Demopoulos, who included the idea as part of a list of policy positions on his personal website. TAP, which had Demopoulos’ support in the campaign, republished the proposal online. The proposal called PSI’s paramedics “sub-par,” “mediocre” and “at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Two weeks before PSI filed its lawsuit claiming they’d been defamed, Hubert Hermanek Jr., who was a village trustee and mayoral candidate for the rival VIP Party, called a meeting of the village’s board’s police and fire committee, which he chaired.
More a court hearing than a committee meeting, Hermanek termed the TAP Party’s statements libelous and called four witnesses before the committee, including the fire chief and three lieutenants to testify about the service provided by PSI paramedics.
Those testifying stated that there were few, if any, problems reported about paramedic services from PSI, which at the time had been employed by the village for more than 25 years.
In its lawsuit filed later that month, PSI claimed that the statements on Demopoulos’ and TAP’s websites had “the chilling effect of tainting the general public’s perception of the skill and quality” of PSI’s paramedics.
While the lawsuit has been settled, the rivalry between Hermanek and Demopoulos hasn’t ended. Hermanek was elected mayor in April 2013 and he and a slate of VIP candidates for trustee and clerk will be challenged in April 2017 by Demopoulos, who has gathered a slate of his own under the Municipal Village Party (MVP) banner.