A federal jury on June 20 awarded former North Riverside police Sgt. Frank Schmalz $600,000 in damages after finding he was defamed by former Mayor Kenneth Krochmal during a public verbal exchange outside the Village Commons on election day in April 2013.
However, the jury ruled in favor of former Police Chief Lane Niemann, finding that he did not retaliate against Schmalz following the election when he passed over Schmalz for promotion to lieutenant, removed him from a drug-and-gang task force and then sent him home for good because injuries prevented Schmalz from fulfilling his duties as a police officer.
The verdict came after an 11-day trial in front of Judge Andrea R. Wood at the U.S. District Courthouse in Chicago that featured testimony from a half dozen former and current village officials.
Of the $600,000 awarded to Schmalz for the defamation verdict, $450,000 was awarded as general damages and $150,000 was awarded as punitive damages.
It is not clear at this time who is responsible for paying those damages or when. The village’s attorney, Matthew Hurd of Ancel Glink P.C., who also represents Krochmal, indicated some sort of filing contesting the jury’s award was being considered.
“We’re exploring all of our options right now,” Hurd said.
The attorneys for both Schmalz and the village claimed partial victory.
“The jury’s decisive verdict reinstates Frank Schmalz’s excellent reputation of 28 years of loyal public service for the residents of North Riverside and stands as a resounding condemnation of Mayor Ken Krochmal’s reprehensible conduct,” said Schmalz’s attorney, Jeffrey Kulwin, in an emailed statement.
Hurd said the jury’s quick decision, after about three hours of deliberation, was a clear indication that they did not buy Schmalz’s allegation that Niemann retaliated against him for engaging in protected political speech.
The jury also apparently did not consider the disappearance of about 50 text messages between Niemann and former Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. about changes to the police department, messages which Schmalz contended would have been unfavorable to Niemann, to have been either intentional or in bad faith.
“They exonerated Lane Niemann and found there was no 1st Amendment violation; we’re very happy with that,” Hurd said.
Schmalz, the North Riverside Police Union president in 2013, had backed another former North Riverside police officer and then-village trustee, Rocco DeSantis, for mayor against Hubert Hermanek Jr., a village trustee slated by the VIP Party to succeed Krochmal, who did not run for re-election after one term.
It was a common belief during the 2013 election campaign that if DeSantis was elected mayor, he would appoint Schmalz police chief. After Hermanek was elected, he appointed Niemann to replace then-Chief Anthony Garvey, demoting Garvey to commander instead of promoting Niemann to lieutenant.
After Garvey’s death two months later, Niemann promoted Christian Ehrenberg to commander to replace Garvey.
Niemann expressed relief that the lawsuit against him had been resolved in his favor after such a long time. Schmalz filed the lawsuit in the fall of 2013.
“I believe the jury got it right, and I was 100% vindicated after having a federal lawsuit hanging over my head for 10 years and having people making judgments before the fact,” Niemann told the Landmark.
The 2013 election in North Riverside was particularly contentious. From the outset, the VIP Party tried its best to kneecap DeSantis’ Transparency and Accountability in Politics Party, known as TAP.
As election day neared, the campaign was chaotic. A local electoral board, controlled by VIP, threw TAP’s slate off the ballot over the number of words in the party’s official name, and Krochmal personally filed suit seeking DeSantis to be declared ineligible for public office because he was still technically employed by the village as a police officer on a duty-related disability.
The Illinois Court of Appeals reversed the ruling regarding the TAP slate’s dismissal from the ballot, which had been upheld by a Cook County judge, just two weeks prior to the election.
Special ballots had to be printed with TAP’s slate included on them – but without DeSantis, who the appellate court ruled was ineligible to run for mayor. The end stage of the campaign also included a libel lawsuit filed against TAP candidates by the village’s paramedic service provider.
That was the backdrop for the happenings outside the Village Commons on April 9, 2013. Both Schmalz and Krochmal were greeting voters outside the polling place when things boiled over.
Krochmal reportedly misinformed voters repeatedly that the police union supported VIP’s candidates, statements that Schmalz acted to correct. As things got testier, Krochmal accused Schmalz of committing crimes while working as a police officer during a TAP gathering at a forest preserve earlier that spring.
Second Schmalz lawsuit against North Riverside still pending
Although the jury is in for the decade-old lawsuit filed by former North Riverside Police Sgt. Frank Schmalz against former Mayor Kenneth Krochmal and former Police Chief Lane Niemann, there’s one more case pending in U.S. District Court.
In March 2021, just prior to another village election, Schmalz filed a second lawsuit against the village of North Riverside in federal court, claiming the village was withholding more than $60,000 in benefits he was entitled to under the Public Safety Employees Benefits Act.
In 2020, a Cook County Circuit Court judge had ruled that the village improperly denied Schmalz benefits related to a line-of-duty disability retroactive to July 20, 2016, the date the North Riverside Police Pension Board determined he qualified for that disability.
According to the lawsuit, North Riverside Village Manager Sue Scarpiniti, who was a member of the police pension board at that time, voted against granting the disability and was improperly withholding payment of benefits awarded to Schmalz by the circuit court.
In his 2021 lawsuit, Schmalz contended that the withholding of benefits was retaliation against him and sought punitive damages in addition to the benefits and legal fees associated with the case.
However, in March, U.S. District Court Judge Edmond E. Chang granted the village of North Riverside’s motion to dismiss the 2021 lawsuit but gave leave for Schmalz to file an amended complaint. That complaint must be filed by June 27.
“We will continue to seek justice for Frank Schmalz and to hold village officials accountable for their role in what happened to him after the 2013 election,” said Schmalz’s attorney, Jeffrey Kulwin, in an email.