A high-ranking administrator at a west suburban elementary school district was fired for alleged sexual harassment, then re-hired after campaigning for several school board members, the Better Government Association has learned.
Joe Burdi was head of buildings, grounds and transportation for Bellwood School District 88 when he was fired in December 2010 in the wake of a sexual harassment complaint – the second instance in three years in which a female employee accused Burdi of inappropriate comments and unwanted sexual advances, according to interviews and public records.
Weeks before his firing – while the latest allegation was still being investigated by the district – Burdi was among a cadre of political figures from Stone Park and Bellwood to hit the streets to gather signatures from registered voters so three District 88 candidates, all non-incumbents, could appear on the ballot in the April 2011 election, records show.
All three ended up winning, with a strong showing in Stone Park, records show. (In addition to Stone Park and Bellwood, District 88 draws grammar school-age students from Broadview, Hillside, Maywood and Melrose Park.)
In January 2012, with “yes” votes from board President Maria Castrejon and the three new members, the District 88 school board voted 4-3 to re-hire Burdi into an $80,000-a-year post and award him a $40,000 settlement to withdraw a federal civil rights lawsuit he had filed to get his job back. Like Burdi, Castrejon is part of the Neighbors Active Party of Stone Park, a political group, and she also serves as the elected village clerk in the western suburb. Burdi circulated nominating petitions for her school board race in 2009, documents show.
Burdi insists there was no quid pro quo, explaining he passed nominating petitions for the three new members because “I believe that they had the best interests of the kids at heart.”
Besides, he said, the board did the right thing because he should never have been fired in the first place. He claims the sexual harassment allegations were never proven, and were used as an excuse to get rid of him because he was part of a rival political faction.
One of the beneficiaries of Burdi’s door knocking, first-term school board member Janice Johnson-Starks, said she did not know Burdi when she was running for office and only learned of his support after the election.
As for her vote to settle with Burdi and hire him back, Johnson-Starks said there was no conclusive evidence that Burdi had done anything wrong. “I’ve seen it before,” she said. “I’ve worked in [the federal] government for 21 years, and I know that people slander people when they can’t get what they want.”
Another new school board member helped by Burdi is Joe Madrid, a former Stone Park village trustee who served on the village board with Burdi at one time.
Madrid said he asked Burdi to circulate petitions, and Burdi obliged but didn’t ask for anything in return. Madrid said they didn’t talk about the harassment allegations or lawsuit.
The third new school board member, Daisy Allen, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Burdi did not circulate petitions for any of the seven school board candidates who unsuccessfully ran against Allen, Madrid and Johnson-Starks in 2011, campaign records show. The three sitting members who voted against rehiring Burdi weren’t up for reelection in 2011. They, along with Castrejon, last ran in 2009, and at that time, Burdi donated $1,000 to a campaign committee benefitting them, records show. Castrejon and her three then-allies later had a falling out, she said.
The BGA routinely investigates possible conflicts of interest and favoritism to ensure local government is operating with integrity and embracing sound financial practices.
Questions Surface About Attorney’s Role in Case
Another curiosity with Joe Burdi’s return to Bellwood School District 88 involves the now-former school board attorney, Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who recently was elected to the General Assembly as a state representative.
Back in December 2010, Welch told board members “that it was in our rights” to fire Burdi after a sexual harassment complaint was lodged by a female employee against him, recalled one veteran member, Marilyn Thurman.
Burdi was head of buildings, grounds and transportation, making more than $100,000 a year when the school board followed through and dismissed him.
Burdi sued to get his job back, and Welch told the board he could win the case, said another veteran board member, Dorothy Smith.
But by late 2011, Welch seemed to change his tune, as his law firm recommended that the board settle with Burdi and rehire him, according to Thurman and Smith.
That’s what the board eventually did, putting him into a slightly different job that carried an $80,000 salary. The board voted in January 2012 to reinstate Burdi, and he started in February.
Welch declined to discuss the case in detail, saying he is not allowed to talk about his clients to outsiders.
But Welch’s about-face came as he received financial support from Burdi’s political party, Neighbors Active Party of Stone Park, in his legislative race. That group donated $1,000 to Welch’s campaign fund in September 2011, $160 in October 2011 and $500 in March 2012, state records show.
“There is absolutely no connection with me, my firm and Mr. Burdi,” Welch said in an email. “The Neighbors Active Party of Stone Park did support my state rep campaign by donating financially. We had mayors and their local political parties from at least six other municipalities do the same.”
Stone Park Mayor Ben Mazzulla insists the political party backed Welch not because of Burdi, but because Mazzulla is long-time friends with Welch, with whom he attended high school. Welch’s legislative district does not cover Stone Park.
These stories were written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Alden Loury. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9036.