Fairview Heights mayor stonewalls public

The Madison County Record May 22, 2009, 5:17pm

A few plaintiff's lawyers bamboozled him. They convinced him to let them use the city's good name and resources so they could file a grandiose class action lawsuit.

They promised justice, glory, and tax riches. Instead, they delivered a big dollop of bad publicity that almost tubed his re-election bid.

One cannot blame Fairview Heights Mayor Gail Mitchell for being humiliated over his questionable judgment. But that doesn't mean he should be allowed to act as if his city's Great Online Travel Lawsuit Gambit never happened.

Mitchell's City Attorney, Al Paulson, has refused to answer our requests to see documents related to the lawsuit, in which he and private attorney Richard Burke sought to use Fairview Heights as "lead plaintiff" in a class action lawsuit against a raft of online travel retailers, who they accused of not making customers pay local hotel taxes. The case fizzled out earlier this spring.

Lawyers had hoped to corral dozens of Illinois cities to join them. They didn't. It was a dream that became a nightmare. Big class actions can reap a mint for the lawyers. This one didn't.

After five years of legal wrangling, one plaintiff, Orbitz, paid a piddling $56,733.68 to Fairview Heights last month to make the case go away.

And that was only after it was agreed the company did nothing wrong. In legal parlance, that's called a nuisance settlement.

Mayor Mitchell lent the city's reputation to a few private lawyers in an attempt to strongarm millions out of Orbitz and others. They got pennies in the end.

That makes the episode very relevant to local taxpayers. Now it's time for hard answers. What happened to the $56,733.68? Did any of if go to Richard Burke or Al Paulson, the private lawyers? Did they get any other city money for handling the case? How many city resources were used pursuing this case? And what did Mayor Mitchell expect the city to get out of the failed attempt?

We're asking these questions on the public's behalf, and we're not getting answers--yet. The people of Fairview Heights deserve to know all the facts. We intend to find out.

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