DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin says sheriff John Zaruba must be held accountable after a federal jury returned a $1 million verdict for a deputy who argued she was denied a promotion because of political favoritism.
"This is a real black eye for that office, and it casts a shadow on all county offices," Cronin said Tuesday. "There will be a response from the county board to the sheriff because this impacts the taxpayers. I'm shocked and outraged."
Susan Lakics, a 16-year sheriff's employee, sued in 2009 alleging Zaruba passed her over for a promotion because of sexual discrimination and because he had a political beef with her husband, a former mayor of West Chicago.
On Monday, a federal jury rejected the discrimination claim but agreed that politics were behind Lakics' stagnating career, awarding her $1 million dollars.
The verdict actually could end up costing the county closer to $1.5 million -- or more, Lakics' attorney John C. Kreamer estimated.
He said the $1 million judgment doesn't include plaintiff attorney fees or wages his client would have received had she been promoted five years ago. A judge could rule on both issues at an upcoming hearing, he said.
Kreamer described his client, who remains a deputy, as "very relieved" and said she "felt very vindicated" by the verdict.
"She is one of the most courageous and brave women I have ever met," Kreamer said, adding Lakics has no plans to resign. "Despite being humiliated and embarrassed by the sheriff, she returned to work today (Tuesday)."
Zaruba's office didn't respond to requests for comment.
Officials at the state's attorney's office, which represents all county offices in civil litigation, said Monday they will ask for a new trial but are prepared to appeal.
Kreamer said Lakics suffered a "pattern of retaliation and discrimination" starting in 1998 when Zaruba and Lakics' husband Steve, had a falling out over Zaruba's plan to create an offender "boot camp" in West Chicago, where Steve Lakics was mayor at the time.
According to Kreamer, Zaruba transferred Susan Lakics from the booking department to third-shift jail duty and went on to deny her several other assignments and routine employee requests.
The "final straw," according to Kreamer, was when Zaruba passed over Lakics for a promotion to sergeant in 2007 -- the same year she was named deputy employee of the year.
The lawsuit says Lakics ranked sixth out of 60 employees who tested for the promotion; however, Zaruba skipped over Lakics name, promoting the first five people on the ranking and also the seventh.
Kreamer said the sheriff instructed supervisors to "never give me (Lakics') name again" for a promotion. Someone also wrote "DOA," or "dead on arrival," next to her name on a promotions ranking list, Kreamer said.
According to court records, Zaruba argued he promoted another officer who was more qualified for the job. But Kreamer said the evidence was "overwhelming that the sheriff runs a pay-to-play atmosphere."
"The jury believed the plaintiff because she had a strong case," Kreamer said. "I do not agree (with the state's attorney's office) that there are any appealable issues."
He said three current deputies testified for the plaintiff, while the defense called no deputies. Kreamer said the sheriff had also refused to discuss a possible settlement beyond a $5,000 "nuisance value" to end the lawsuit.
Reacting to the verdict Tuesday, Cronin said Zaruba is a "separately elected office holder who needs to be held accountable for the judgment and the behavior and conduct of his office."
He said county board members spent the morning in closed session discussing how best to move forward. No decisions have been made.
"It's troubling and disturbing and offending to me because we try so hard to gain the trust and confidence of the public, and then this happens," Cronin said. "We are stuck paying the bill, so it just adds insult to injury as far as I'm concerned. Maybe the judgment amount ought to come out of his (Zaruba's) budget. Maybe we'll send the bill back"