Avon Twp. settles political firings case for $450K

Avon Township will pay $450,000 to settle a federal lawsuit that claimed some assessor’s office employees were fired or pressured to retire for political reasons in January 2010.

Four workers contended in the suit they no longer were employed because they backed former township Assessor Rick Dishman, instead of Bryce Carus, the man who won the post in the April 2009 election.

Carus officially took office Jan. 1, 2010. He resigned in June for health reasons, which led to the appointment of an interim assessor.

Last week, a settlement was reached in U.S. District Court in Chicago that’ll provide the $450,000 to the employees who filed the lawsuit that alleged First Amendment rights violations and political discrimination.

Attorneys involved in the case said the township’s insurance will cover part of the settlement.

Gregory Rogus, an attorney who represented Avon Township, said the settlement was the best course of action for the nearly 2-year-old case. He said the township did not admit guilt with the deal.

“As the case makes its way through litigation, you are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating,” Rogus said Monday.

Lawyer Keith Hunt, who filed the suit on behalf of the workers, said higher future insurance premiums and unspecified out-of-pocket expenses will be an unfortunate cost to township taxpayers as a result of what he called a substantial settlement.

“We think it sends a strong message to these smaller units of government that it’s not OK to base hiring on politics,” Hunt said.

William Rust, Penelope Heckel, Janice Roth and the former assessor’s brother, Michael Dishman, filed the lawsuit against Avon Township. They all supported Rick Dishman in his race against Carus in 2009.

Court documents state Avon Township Supervisor Sam Yingling on Dec. 30, 2009, informed Rust, Heckel and Michael Dishman they’d be fired. Yingling also ordered the locks be changed at the assessor’s office, according to the lawsuit.

Michael Dishman, Rust and Heckel still reported for work Jan. 4, 2010, and were waiting outside when Carus told them they were fired, the suit says. Roth opted to retire because comments by Carus led her to believe she’d be sacked for political reasons, court papers state.

“I am glad you are retiring because you wouldn’t have had a job here anyway,” Carus was quoted as telling Roth in the federal complaint.

Carus’ sworn responses to attorney questions in a deposition for the case detailed his hiring of friends, family and political cronies. Documents show some of Carus’ hires had no experience in real estate or property assessment.

Just after taking office, Carus hired his 30-year-old son, Sean, to a $23-an-hour job measuring property in assessment disputes and handling paperwork. Carus said his son never formally applied for the job.

“Now, the only job that Sean had since graduating from high school was as a janitor or maintenance custodial person at a school district, correct?” Hunt inquired of Bryce Carus in the deposition.

“That’s correct,” replied Carus, who declined to comment on the case Monday.

Family friend Amber Bulleri, 27, of Twin Lakes, Wis., was hired by Carus for an assessor’s office position last year with little knowledge of her work experience, according to his deposition transcript.

Bulleri said in her deposition she didn’t have to apply for a $14-an-hour job as a data entry and filing employee. She said it was her first full-time job since graduating from Mesa Community College in Arizona in 2007.

Other Carus hires included Grayslake Elementary District 46 board member Kip Evans and Cynthia Brust, whose husband Thomas is a Yingling political ally and was appointed as Avon Township’s highway commissioner last year.

Evans, a farmer and retired teacher who volunteered for Carus’ campaign, and Brust were terminated from their assessor jobs in February 2010.

After departing the assessor’s office, Brust said in her deposition, Yingling hired her as Avon Township’s food pantry coordinator, a job she held from March to November 2010. She said she had home appraisal experience when Carus hired her.

Yingling said in a statement that while the township remained a defendant in the case, Carus’ actions were the focus. Carus was on Yingling’s political team in the 2009 election.

“It is exactly this type of behavior — feeding at the public trough for personal gain — that I oppose at my very core,” Yingling said.

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