Chicago pays $40 million annually to private firms, same as entire Law Department budget

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Friday, February 24, 2023
City pays $40M a year to private firms, same as Law Department budget
Chicago spends as much money on private law firms to defend mostly police misconduct cases as it does on funding its own Law Department, records show.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- In recent years, records show the city of Chicago is spending as much money on outside law firms to defend mostly police misconduct cases as it is on funding its own law department.

The practice costs Chicago taxpayers nearly $40 million a year, even though the city has its own Law Department budgeted to handle legal problems. Many of the cases involve police violence. Victims say the drawn out litigation process is traumatic.

Former Chicago police officer Lowell Houser was off-duty when he shot and killed 38-year-old Jose Nieves in 2017. Nieves was not armed. Houser was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The Nieves family sued Houser and the City of Chicago.

"I would rather have a bone crushing hug from my brother than any money or anything," said sister Angelica Nieves.

A $1.9 million settlement went to the Nieves family and their attorney, but it took five years. An I-Team data analysis shows the city spent nearly $1 million taxpayer on outside law firms to litigate the case.

"The City of Chicago is spending millions of dollars defending indefensible cases. Those firms objective, from what I have seen, is to bill as many hours as they can of taxpayer money versus working to resolve cases," said Andrew Stroth, Nieves family attorney.

Through a public records request, the I-Team found that over the past five years Chicago forked over about $40 million a year to private firms instead of hiring more in-house attorneys who would make significantly less money as public employees. We calculated that the entire Law Department budget is about the same as the total amount the city spends annually on outside law firms.

"As soon as I looked at the budget and saw the outside spending I was like, this is ridiculous," said Mark Flessner, former Chicago Corporation Counsel.

Flessner was the city's top attorney until he was asked to resign by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2020. He said he was working to hire more in-house attorneys so taxpayers wouldn't have to spend so much defending the city.

"I was working on that big time with the city council members because it would save the city $40 to $50 million a year," said Flessner.

He said it costs about five times more to send a case to outside counsel than it does to keep it in house. Funding for private firms doesn't even come out of the Law Department budget.

"It's just a general spending of the city. They play with the city budget, and they play with the Law Department budget, and they're able to say the Law Department budget is low, but they don't have to account for the outside counsel fees," Flessner said.

Several attorneys the I-Team talked to also said the city isn't being transparent.

"You know the full amount immediately when City Council is approving what will go to the survivor of police violence and their counsel. What hasn't been revealed publicly, what sort of has been, you know, in the shadows, is what it's costing the City to defend these lawsuits. So, the fact that when we see these headlines, we're only getting a fraction of the story," said Sheila Bedi, Northwestern Law Professor and Director of Community Justice Center.

"The City Council is not aware of what the city pays," said Flessner

"The public should know how much of their taxpayer dollars are going to defend these cases. And there's got to be a better way to resolve these cases other than wasting taxpayer money and making these families go through years of unnecessary and wasteful litigation," said Stroth.

Some are pushing for the city to adopt a policy where civil rights filings are analyzed to identify cases that could be resolved more quickly.

"There is a way that this litigation can be significantly streamlined, and it could save taxpayers millions of dollars, but it would really require the political will to prioritize making survivors whole and to conserve taxpayer dollars," said Bedi.

She said a more thoughtful process would have helped the Nieves family.

"I wanted my voice to be heard to get justice for my brother," said Angelica Nieves.

The Law Department turned down the I-Team's request for an on camera interview and would not answer questions about if they plan to reduce the use of outside counsel in the future. The department has 276 attorney positions; 39 of those are currently vacant.