Obama letter used to back Joliet’s efforts to condemn Evergreen Terrace
By Bob Okon firstname.lastname@example.org October 9, 2012 9:02PM
Three residents walk through a parking lot in 2003 at Evergreen Terrace in Joliet. | Sun-Times Media file photo
Updated: November 11, 2012 6:22AM
CHICAGO — President Barack Obama became part of the city of Joliet’s case to condemn Evergreen Terrace on Tuesday.
Former City Manager John Mezera testified in the third day of the trial that then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama as well as two former heads of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggested that the city was on the right track as it moved to take over the subsidized housing complex from private owners.
Obama’s administration, including HUD, now contends that Joliet is discriminating against the mostly black tenants of Evergreen Terrace as it tries to take over the 356-unit apartment complex on Broadway Street.
But Obama and HUD both influenced the city’s decision to file a condemnation suit in 2005 to try to resolve long-standing problems of crime and unsafe conditions at Evergreen Terrace, Mezera testified.
Obama’s name entered the trial through an Aug. 11, 2005, letter to the city that argues against a HUD refinancing for Evergreen Terrace, saying it “would reward the current management and owners with an undeserved opportunity to retain control of the property.”
The letter signed by Obama, Sen. Richard Durbin and former U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, however, also says that HUD officials were “legally bound” to proceed with the refinancing and suggested that the city consider three options, including condemnation.
The letter describes a meeting that included former HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson.
Mezera said the city later heard from a staff member in Weller’s office that Jackson had described condemnation as the “best option.”
City officials had previously met with Jackson’s predecessor, HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, in 2003, when they made a case to stop the HUD refinancing.
“Secretary Martinez was very receptive to our presentation,” Mezera said. “He said from what he knew of the project he would not want it in his backyard. He said unless they were legally bound to the project, he would not want it to proceed.”
HUD now is a codefendant in the condemnation case along with Evergreen Terrace. Lawyers for both the owners of Evergreen Terrace and HUD argued against allowing as evidence the Obama letter and Mezera’s testimony about the comments from the two former HUD secretaries.
One of the arguments against Obama letter was that none of the three congressmen who signed it had been brought into the pretrial depositions to talk about what happened back in 2005.
“One of these people is the president of the United States of America,” protested James Figliulo, an attorney for the city of Joliet in the case. “I’m not going to take his deposition.”
“There were two other signatures on the letter,” responded Dean Polales, the attorney for the Evergreen Terrace owners. “In respect to the president, it’s his office that is defending this case. Apparently, he’s changed his mind.”
Mezera also described an impromptu tour of Evergreen Terrace with former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald in October 2003 as the city sought his support in blocking the HUD refinancing.
“As we went into the buildings, the smell of urine was very strong,” Mezera said. “Door latches were problematic. Mail boxes were unusable by the tenants. Elevators were inoperable.”
Defense attorneys, who included a third lawyer representing four Evergreen Terrace residents, objected to a letter from Fitzgerald describing his visit being allowed as evidence.
U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle, who is presiding over the bench trial, questioned why the attorney for the tenants would want to block a Fitzgerald letter that included his summary of what tenants told him about Evergreen Terrace.
“What is the objection of the tenants to hearing what the tenants have to say?” Norgle asked. When told the attorney is representing a group of four tenants, Norgle replied, “So we have hundreds of tenants that are not represented?”