Ex-Joliet city official loses appeal against former inspector general

Councilman Jim McFarland addresses members of the public and the Joliet City Council on Aug. 18, 2015. He submitted his resignation Friday from City Council.

An Illinois appellate court held former Joliet Inspector General Sean Connolly’s investigative report was immune from defamation claims lodged by a former Joliet City Council member.

While Connolly’s report was immune from liability under what’s known as common law, Connolly was not immune from liability under state law because he was not an public employee, according to a June 3 ruling from the 3rd District Appellate Court in Ottawa.

The ruling was delivered by Appellate Justice Linda Davenport in response to an appeal from former Joliet City Council member James McFarland. He lost his defamation case against Connolly on Sept. 6, 2023.

On that day, Grundy County Judge Gary Dobbs dismissed McFarland’s claim that he was defamed by Connolly in his report that alleged McFarland participated in a conspiracy against former Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk.

An appeal for another case connected to Connolly remains pending as of Tuesday. Although Connolly was removed as inspector general Jan. 24, he was allowed by the city to continue his own appeal of his lawsuit against Illinois State Police. The lawsuit was dismissed last year on the grounds he had no power to sue as the inspector general.

The city has not hired a new inspector general since Connolly’s departure.

McFarland’s case against Connolly was filed March 23, 2023, several weeks after Connolly delivered his report alleging a “cabal” conspired to pressure former Joliet City Council member Don “Duck” Dickinson into filing a false police report against O’Dekirk.

Connolly’s report was released about a month before the April 4, 2023, election that led to Joliet Mayor Terry D’Arcy’s landslide victory over O’Dekirk, whose second term in office was beset by numerous controversies.

McFarland also sued O’Dekirk over Connolly’s report, which marked O’Dekirk’s third lawsuit while in office. McFarland later dropped his defamation claim against O’Dekirk after conceding he was afforded immunity under state law.

The appellate ruling from Davenport said Dobbs was wrong to rule that Connolly was shielded from liability under a state law that’s known as the Tort Immunity Act. Connolly was an independent contractor, not a public employee who would receive immunity from liability under that law, Davenport said.

Inspector General Sean Connolly leaves the podium after speaking on conspiracy allegations against Joliet Mayor Bob O’DeKirk during the City Council Meeting at City Hall in Joliet on Monday, March 13th, 2023.

Although Connolly’s inspector general position was created by Joliet city ordinance, his appointment was based on a service agreement that essentially made the city a “client” of Connolly, Davenport said.

Connolly had autonomy over his work and he could bill the city by the hour, Davenport said.

Despite Connolly’s status as an independent contractor, he nevertheless conducted a “valid investigation” under city ordinance into the alleged conspiracy against O’Dekirk, Davenport said. Afterward, Connolly gave his report to O’Dekirk, she said.

“Consequently, any statements in the report – defamatory or otherwise – were made in the discharge of Connolly’s duty to report the results of an investigation conducted under express authority of law,” Davenport said.

That made Connolly’s report immune from defamation claims under common law, she said.

McFarland’s appeal had also contended the city ordinance creating Connolly’s position was unconstitutional. However, Davenport said McFarland’s arguments were “incomplete” and he failed to demonstrate a constitutional violation occurred.

Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow had also claimed the city ordinance was unconstitutional in Connolly’s lawsuit case against Illinois State Police. Connolly’s lawsuit claimed state police refused to respond to his subpoena for their records regarding an investigation into Dickinson’s intimidation allegations against O’Dekirk.

Glasgow had not challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance when one of his own prosecutors, Christopher Regis, left his office to become the inspector general in 2016.

But Glasgow raised that challenge after learning Connolly wanted to interview him for his investigation into the alleged conspiracy against O’Dekirk, court records show.

Will County Judge John Anderson did not rule on Glasgow’s arguments in his Dec. 15, 2023, ruling to dismiss Connolly’s lawsuit. Instead, Anderson sided with Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s Office argument that Connolly had no power to sue.

Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, back left, and Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow attend a rally for ZONTA Says No To Violence Against Women outside the old court house on Tuesday in Joliet.