The Safety Squeeze

November 20, 2008 9:23:57 AM PST
A disabled man says he's performing a public service by filing complaints against Chicago businesses. Business owners who have paid him thousands of dollars call it a private shakedown.

The South Michigan Avenue resident has filed more than 100 cases of civil rights violations against Chicago businesses the past six years, claiming they are not accessible to him. Whether "the safety squeeze" is a public service or a private shakedown, the city of Chicago is an accomplice.

Anthony Cotten is a professional complainer. From his wheelchair - the result of a gunshot wound - Mr. Cotten usually files multiple cases on a single day, settling for hundreds up to $1,000.

"I'm very sensitive to a disabled person. My dad was in a wheelchair for six years," said Pam Farley, Old Town Pizza Pub.

Farley owns the Old Town Pizza Pub, across the street from Jim Walters' Old Town Aquarium Fish Store. Both proprietors were stunned when Cotten filed civil rights complaints against them, saying he couldn't enter their businesses because of stairs.

"We have a ramp entrance; he obviously never came to the front door," said Farley.

And Walters says his store has been wheelchair accessible for nearly six years.

"The side entrance has a ramp that's up all the time," Walters said.

Both of these cases were thrown out, but only after Farley and Walters spent up to a year and thousands of dollars defending themselves.

"The more that we would fight it and show proof that we have always been handicap accessible, Mr. Cotten would just lower the amount of money that he was looking for," said Walters.

"He wasn't looking out for the best interest of the disabled person, he was out to shake people down, " Farley said.

Retired Chicago police official Dana Starks is the mayor's commissioner on human relations.

"Yeah, I believe that is unusual for an individual to file a high number of complaints, but that doesn't mean that any one of those complaints is valid or invalid," Starks said.

Cotten filed a complaint against a Lincoln Park business claiming it was inaccessible. Homemade Pizza says it was happy to buy a portable ramp but fought the complaint because all building plans had been reviewed and approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the Department of Construction and Permits, the Department on Fire Regulations and even the Mayor's Office for Persons with Disabilities. Due to the growing cost of defending itself, the company offered Cotten free delivered pizzas as a settlement but said Cotten only wanted cash, a demand that the I-Team heard from numerous business owners.

"He wanted the cash, he wanted $1,500," said David Sheleist, Denim Lounge.

Last year, Cotten filed a complaint against Sheleist's boutique in a 100-year-old, Oak Street building, claiming he couldn't get upstairs, and when he called for assistance, says he was told they wouldn't help.

"No one recalls taking a phone call from anyone that needed assistance with a wheelchair," Sheleist said.

Only when Sheleist requested phone records from Cotten did he drop the case amidst a settlement hearing that Sheleist says was forced on him by city officials and moderated by outside lawyers hired by the human relations commission.

"The city, on his behalf, asked me to write him a check, which I felt was very wrong," said Sheleist. "The arbitrator said, 'Can't you come to a fair amount of money to pay him for this to go away?'"

"What is the commission's position on encouraging these to be settled so they don't go to a hearing?" ABC7's Chuck Goudie asked.

"We don't," Starks said.

But the commission's own regulations make it clear: "It is the policy of the commission to encourage the voluntary settlement of complaints."

Despite that, Commissioner Starks said, "We do not recommend it, we do not pursue it. Our job is to pursue the complaint."

Who is Anthony Cotten? He is a 40-year-old convicted burglar and thief - twice for residential burglary and three times for department store thefts, along with a drug conviction.

After Cotten agreed to an interview with the I-Team, his attorney left a message stating that there would be no interview but contends there are several of Cotten's cases that resulted in positive changes.

"Many handicapped people have benefited from what has occurred and the city ordinance, the purpose of it is to provide handicapped accessibility and disabled people are better off for it," the attorney said.

In a letter last summer, Human Relations Chairman Dana Starks linked Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid to full accessibility for residents and visitors. Until then, Starks says he's working to have the Human Relations Commission become part of the approval process for building permits. Starks says that could drastically cut the number of handicap access complaints.

As for businesses that claim they've been falsely accused by Cotten or others? Even though the city says there is nothing they can do, one business owner has filed for damages. Mr. Cotten has not responded.

Chicago Human Rights Ordinance, Chicago Fair Housing Ordinance, Commission on Human Relations Enabling Ordinance:
http://egov.cityofchicago.org/webportal/COCWebPortal/COC_EDITORIAL/Regulations2008.pdf

Chicago Commission on Human Relations website:
http://egov.cityofchicago.org/city/webportal/portalEntityHomeAction.do?BV_SessionID=@@@@1038859875.1227134540@@@@&BV_EngineID=cccdadefkdlmkfhcefecelldffhdfho.0&entityName=Human+Relations&entityNameEnumValue=23&topChannelName=Dept


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