Proviso politician secures jobs, raises for friends, family
Text message from Chris Welch on Alexis Wallace's old cell phone. The text, sent Aug. 28, 2010, reads: "I allowed them to be employed! And I'm the board president! Period! End of conversation. Things better change now. I won't tolerate disrespect."
Updated: March 29, 2012 4:02PM
With statements like “Make it happen. I need her to be hired,” Emanuel “Chris” Welch has kept at least 19 close friends and relatives in good-paying jobs at Proviso High School District 209 where he is school board president.
Most noteworthy is Welch’s brother, Billy Welch, who makes $56,760 annually as a janitor at Proviso West.
And Welch’s best friend, Ron “R.C.” Anderson, who was best man at Welch’s wedding, makes $90,290 per year as a night foreman at Proviso Math & Science Academy.
The average District 209 teacher salary is $61,972, according to the 2011 Illinois State Board of Education’s yearly report cards.
Welch used his influence to help secure employment for at least 13 friends/political supporters and six relatives, according to a Forest Leaves investigation. The reporting is based on Freedom of Information Act-obtained documents, lawsuits filed against Welch and District 209, text messages, and interviews with six independent sources familiar with District 209 hiring practices.
“They [employees close to Welch] have what I call a sponsor. You may have a mayor that will give Welch a call, and say, ‘I have a person who needs employment. Can you bring him on?’ ” said one former, longtime employee who was privy to Welch’s influence over the hiring process at District 209.
“It’s almost, like, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” said the former employee who asked not to be named because of fear of reprisal.
Welch, who is running for state representative in the 7th District, refused to be interviewed. Instead, he e-mailed this response:
“One thing I love about Proviso and the 7th District is that it is a very close and tight-knit community … I consider the majority of school district employees my friends. I consider them friends not only because I am school board president, but because they are on the front-lines everyday working to improve education in my community.” [See his full comments in related story].
Forest Leaves attempted to contact every one of the employees in question, but all of them hung up the phone immediately, didn’t answer it, or refused to comment.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a conflict-of-interest,” said Dick Simpson, head of the department of politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of a recent study on corruption in Chicago politics. “A good public servant would have rules to prevent [hiring friends and family members].”
The District 209 school board did adopt an anti-nepotism policy in October 2010. But the 19 employees connected to Welch predated that policy.
Of the 19 friends or relatives of Welch who work at the district, 13 have made financial contributions to Welch’s campaign fund or engaged in political activity for him. (See related story.)
Friends and family
Welch’s brother Billy, who was hired in 2005, is just one of Welch’s relatives who work at the district.
Other kin on the District 209 payroll include:
• Denise Daniels, another custodian at Proviso West, who makes $45,408.
• Dr. Cynthia Daniels, who teaches science at Proviso Math and Science Academy. She earns just less than Billy the janitor, with an annual salary of $55,411.
• NaTasha Mullen, Terrase Craig and Keresa DeSelle are distant Welch relatives working at District 209. They earn smaller salaries that span $24,000-$42,000.
Other close friends and political supporters, besides Anderson, include:
• Brandon Gale who earns $77,539 as a security supervisor at Proviso Math & Science Academy. He performs political tasks for Welch.
• Carla Johnson who is a district secretary who earns $47,659 annually. She also does political work for Welch.
• Carla Johnson’s brother Corey Johnson also works for District 209. He’s a janitor at Proviso Math & Science Academy, and he makes $45,408 per year. He, too, politicks for Welch. Welch has called Carla and Corey his “close personal friends.”
• Tommie Miller gets paid $7,921 to coach boys basketball at Proviso West. He has also done campaign work for Welch.
• Daphene Walker works at Proviso East. Her specific salary information was not immediately available, although District 209’s June 30, 2011 statement of affairs, which outlines its finances, states she makes “under $25,000.” She also does political work for Welch.
• Brian Carey, an attorney for the district, made $64,834 in gross payments last year, according to the district’s statement of affairs. He gave Welch a $500 campaign contribution last year.
One former District 209 administrator kept proof that Welch not only influenced personnel decision-making, but demanded that staff follow his commands explicitly because he was school board president.
Alexis Wallace, who was the principal at Proviso West until, she said, Welch had her removed from that position, has a text message from Welch.
In 2010, after a Proviso West football game, Wallace said her sister, Dylester Palm, who was dean at the school, rebuffed Welch when she refused to hug him in public.
Welch fired off this text message to Wallace:
“I allowed them to be employed! And I’m the board president! Period! End of conversation. Things better change now. I won’t tolerate disrespect.”
Welch added, “I had a direct hand in helping them b here including u. No one else. At the minimum, I deserve respect.”
Wallace saved the text messages. The phone number where it originated is the same number Welch filed as contact information on his public campaign records.
The version of events is also recorded in a lawsuit that Palm filed against the school district, alleging Palm was unfairly transferred from her job at Proviso West. Palm asked that the lawsuit be dismissed, due to her lack of finances to pursue it. The judge dismissed it without prejudice, which means she can refile it if she chooses.
Welch and his campaign did not returned phone calls or emails seeking comment on those texts.
Welch has been romantically involved with two employees. After they broke up, their employment was terminated.
Nikita Johnson was Welch’s former fiancé and worked as assistant superintendent of finance and operations at District 209 until 2011. She was removed from her office after a controversial districtwide shakeup.
“The list of people you have, who are currently friends of [Welch], who have jobs, do provide some work for him politically and personally,” said Nikita Johnson.
Beyonca Johnson, who is not related, worked as assistant to the superintendent until she was fired in 2008. She said she broke up with Welch shortly before that. She is now running against him for state representative.
The district said she was terminated because she didn’t show up for work, but she denies that. In 2010, Beyonca Johnson sued the district for wrongful termination and took out an order of protection against Welch. Later, the suit was dropped and the order of protection was vacated.
Still, Beyonca Johnson acknowledges that her employment was based on nepotism.
“Welch was able to orchestrate who was in that position or not,” Beyonca said. “Althea [Busby] should have gotten that job. Hands down. She was training me when I started.”
Busby is now executive assistant to the superintendent. She also is listed as a notary on Welch’s petitions for state rep.
District 209 spokeswoman TaQuoya Kennedy maintains nepotism has no place at the district.
“We do not track employees by their familial relationships or friendships with [school] board members,” Kennedy wrote in an email. “A great number of our employees are Proviso graduates, so it would not be out of the ordinary for [school board] members to know some — out of 532 employees.”
Kennedy noted the district has a nepotism policy.
The 2010 nepotism policy states that the board practices “strict scrutiny” when it comes to hiring employees who have “familial or business-professional” relationships with any board member. Family members can still be hired so long as they’re the “most qualified” job applicants. Board members must recuse themselves from voting and reveal those relationships, though.
“Sounds like a terrible rule,” said policy expert Simpson. “This is insufficient in the 21st century. It’s probably verging on illegal.”
“Tell them [District 209] to look at Shakman,” Simpson said, in reference to the landmark Shakman Decrees, which weakened the widespread patronage hiring of Chicago’s Democratic machine in the 1970s.
As for the 19 employees who predated the nepotism policy, Kennedy said that those employees “each went through the hiring process and met or exceed[ed] expectations.”
She added that Welch’s power, when it comes to hiring, is limited to the one vote he casts on the board.
Beyonca Johnson challenged this. “He controls the board. He makes sure he has the majority of the board’s votes,” Johnson said.
“When I was there [in 2008], he had Dan Adams, Robin Foreman and Brian Cross,” she said, in reference to current and former members of the District 209 board, who have frequently voted in line with Welch.
The Forest Leaves also found that at least 10 current and former employees are connected to Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico.
When Danyell Hill, a friend of Serpico’s, was seeking a job, Welch told former Proviso West principal Wallace, “Make it happen. I need her to be hired,” Wallace said. Welch needed Wallace’s signature on a document to move Hill along in the hiring process.
He got it. Hill is now a secretary at Proviso West and earns $36,842 per year.
Two other high-paid administrators — Angelo Calcagno and Fred Gianneschi — are friendly with Serpico and have contributed to Welch’s campaign. While they were hired before Welch arrived on the school board, both have seen promotions and upticks in pay in recent years.
Calcagno makes $106,290 as a building manager at Proviso West. He has campaigned for Welch and donated a combined $550 to Welch’s personal campaign committee and The New Students First Party (which Welch chairs) from 2009-2011, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Gianneschi works as building manager at Proviso East and earns $106,290 a year. He gave New Students First a $200 contribution last year. Gianneschi was hired before Serpico was elected mayor.
Serpico, whose campaign committee has contributed $11,150 in cash and donations to Welch’s political campaigns since 2005, and who has endorsed Welch for state rep, denies having any role in District 209’s hiring process.
Serpico issued this statement through his spokesman, Andrew Mack of Mack Communications.
“I … know many of the fine men and women who teach our children and work in the school district, just as I am well acquainted with a number of residents in our village [Melrose Park]. As for employment matters, I have always left those decisions in the capable hands of the [District 209] administration.”
Serpico did not deny being friendly with any of the people he was asked about.
Drawing the line
Former employees expressed frustrations with Welch’s interference.
“The world is not fair, but when you have people who are qualified for jobs but who don’t know what to do to get in and get the jobs, and then you have someone with a sponsor who just walks up and gets the job; then when are we going to draw the line in the sand?” said one ex-employee.
Wallace said she feels relatively safe being retired, but worries about those who still fear for their jobs with the school district.
“I just hurt for the people who Chris considers my ‘crew,’” Wallace said.
“He will do things. I’ve seen him do things, to set people up.”