Schivarelli’s Beef

“I’ve got to tell you,” says Peter Schivarelli, the former 43rd Ward superintendent, when I ask about his lawsuit against CBS, Channel Two, and reporter Pam Zekman. “In airports or anything, people would say, ‘Why won’t she stop? Why is she doing this over and over again? Why don’t you do something?’ It just got to a point where I finally said, ‘You know what? I agree. Why don’t I do something about it?'”

Schivarelli’s beef is over a new promotional spot for Zekman and Channel Two News that features, among other dramatic moments, a November 1997 confrontation in the parking lot of Demon Dogs, the hot dog stand Schivarelli owns in the ward he maintained for a quarter century. Zekman was alleging that city workers ran personal errands for Schivarelli on city time and that time sheets counted him at work when he wasn’t even in town. Her report prompted the office of Chicago’s inspector general to make its own investigation and Mayor Daley to threaten Schivarelli publicly with dismissal. “You can’t do those things. You cannot cheat the taxpayers of Chicago,” said the mayor. “People say how good he is, but it doesn’t justify anyone not putting in eight hours.”

“The evidence,” the promo shows Zekman telling Schivarelli, “seems to indicate you’re cheating the city.”

There’s no response from Schivarelli in the promo, which quickly cuts to Zekman investigating unsanitary restaurants. But now Schivarelli says, “I made myself available any hour, day or night. It was down to a point where people would leave messages at Demon Dogs at ten at night and I would call them back. And everyone in the ward knew me. I mean, I was here when the ward was still partially almost a ghetto-type situation in some parts in 1971, and I always made myself available. On nights when there was a snowstorm or any problem came up, I was there.”

That’s what some big names said on Schivarelli’s behalf two years ago in response to Channel Two. There were testimonials from Tom Kennedy, head of the Lincoln Park Conservation Association, from Charles Bernardini, then the 43rd Ward alderman, and from three of Bernardini’s predecessors–Martin Oberman, William Singer, and Edwin Eisendrath.

“And these were people who championed the liberal cause,” Schivarelli says. “For them to come out like that shows that they had the pulse of what was going on in the ward.”

As his suit points out, Schivarelli “has never been adjudicated with any work-related offense or impropriety.” Perhaps that’s because he didn’t stick around for adjudication. Accepting a city buyout, he retired from the Department of Streets and Sanitation at age 52, his pension intact. I asked inspector general Alexander Vroustouris why no charges were ever brought.

“OK,” Vroustouris said, “how can I answer that question? The ordinance that created our office places a duty for me to maintain the confidentiality of what we do, so I can’t make a comment one way or another about that. But I guess I would say, ‘Who’s to say that charges weren’t filed against him?'”

Vroustouris’s office investigates between 1,500 and 2,000 cases a year. It forwards its reports to the mayor’s office and to the departments of Law and Personnel. When Vroustouris’s office supports charges against a city employee and Law and Personnel approve them, the case is sent to the employee’s department for disciplinary action. But what if that employee were to retire?

“If something was in the process,” Vroustouris explained, “and the person decided to retire, the process would just cease. Because there would be no action to take against them. There’s nothing to terminate them from.”

Criminal proceedings could continue, but in Schivarelli’s case there’s no sign they were ever begun or even seriously considered. Schivarelli insists he wasn’t driven into retirement; he says he’d been planning to take advantage of a buyout offer even before Zekman’s piece aired, and left believing he’d rebutted her accusations and protected his reputation.

“I wanted to take action in the beginning,” he says, “but after talking to my family, my friends, to a lot of different people, they said, ‘The people who know you know you and the other people won’t even remember.'”

The one-year statute of limitations for defamation passed–but then last month brought the promo. Schivarelli is one of three people seen being grilled by Zekman, who’s been a prizewinning investigative reporter for as long as Schivarelli was a ward superintendent.

“It seems to us odd,” says Schivarelli’s lawyer, Alan Mandel, “that the best example they could find of her investigative sleuthing was a piece that was 18 months old. In our view, they should have found a different person and another example of her fine work that was more recent than this. And it’s pretty telling that they didn’t.”

Not being news, Mandel reasons, the promo exploits his client strictly for commercial purposes. That’s why another count in Schivarelli’s suit accuses Channel Two of having “unlawfully misappropriated Mr. Schivarelli’s likeness.” The suit also argues that the promo gives viewers the false impression that Demon Dogs had been accused of unsanitary practices.

“While we do not comment on pending lawsuits,” Kerri Weitzberg, a Channel Two spokesman, told me in a prepared statement, “we would point out that news organizations regularly call the public’s attention to major investigations they have conducted in the past. This is essential to informing the public of the kind of news coverage that its reporters specialize in. We find it hard to believe that promotion of this kind would be viewed as violating any law when the underlying investigations are sound.”

Because of the suit, Zekman wouldn’t comment on the promo. So it’s not known what she thinks of it. It’s not known whether she considers her report on Schivarelli one of her “major investigations,” or whether she claims responsibility for his resigning as ward superintendent.

“I don’t want their money,” says Schivarelli. “It’s blood money. I’m looking to give it to good causes and I’m not looking to benefit from it. But I gotta tell you–when you have a family and a niece and everybody else, and her uncle’s picture’s being shown, who she knows has worked hard all his life, as the poster boy for corruption, it really gets under your skin.”

–Sridhar Pappu