Lawyers Went to Rahm Emanuel, Then Quashed the Laquan McDonald Video

The mayor’s men demanded that dash-cam video be kept confidential for at least several years as part of a $5 million settlement with the teenager’s family.

01.07.16 4:10 AM ET

CHICAGO — City of Chicago lawyers, after meeting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, demanded the Laquan McDonald family bury the video showing the killing of their son by a police officer.

Emanuel said last month that Stephen Patton, Chicago’s corporation counsel, briefed him “towards the end of March” about what the dashboard-camera video showed and about the proposed $5 million settlement with McDonald’s estate. After that briefing, Patton’s second-in-command, Thomas Platt, drafted settlement language to keep the dash-cam video hidden for at least several years, according to emails reviewed by The Daily Beast (PDF).

Michael Robbins, an attorney for the McDonald estate, balked at the demand.

“The provision as drafted, that we maintain the confidentiality, of the materials—principally the dash-cam-video—until the criminal charges are concluded, which could be in effect for years, is entirely unreasonable,” he wrote to Platt on April 6. “Nor was any such broad sweeping confidentiality provision discussed during our meetings.”

“I’ll call you,” Platt wrote Robbins on April 7.

That was the same day that Emanuel was fighting for his political life in a runoff election after he failed to win 50 percent of the primary vote in the February. (Emanuel won with 56 percent against Chuy Garcia.)

Emanuel had maintained since McDonald’s death that he has never seen the dash-cam video, but the emails prove the mayor knew exactly what the footage showed when city lawyers negotiated a deal that would at least delay the video’s release. Attorneys for McDonald’s estate sent Platt screenshots of the video and a detailed description:

“After Laquan immediately spun to the ground, graphic puffs of smoke from ricochet shots establishes that Officer Van Dyke continued to fire his weapon for approximately 16 seconds after Mr. McDonald laid helplessly in the street.”

Emanuel’s lawyers were offering $5 million in hush money to keep this hidden just weeks before the runoff election. And the biggest part of the deal—that McDonald family attorneys agreed to keep the video to themselves until criminal proceedings were concluded—just so happened to be inked the day after Emanuel was re-elected.

The first draft was sent to the McDonald estate’s lawyers by Platt on March 31. The draft said that the estate would only be free to release the video after potential charges were dismissed by a prosecutor or after a criminal trial was over. Emanuel and his underlings at the Law Department would have preferred this, because it meant the video would have been buried under lengthy legal proceedings that could have taken years.

On April 8, one day after Platt’s phone call, the McDonald estate’s attorneys suddenly agreed to keep the dash-cam video hidden. The only thing that changed in the settlement agreement regarding the video was the deletion of a line that said the estate agreed with the city releasing video would harm ongoing criminal investigations.

One week later, the City Council voted unanimously to approve the $5 million settlement in just 36 seconds. Emanuel banged a gavel to mark the approval and the end—or so he thought—of the greatest threat to his mayoralty.

Emanuel wrote in a December op-ed in the Chicago Tribune that the settlement couldn’t be part of a cover-up because it was the McDonald family’s attorneys who approached the city wanting to settle.

What was not mentioned by Emanuel is that those same attorneys first rejected, then somehow agreed to, the city’s desire to bury the video until criminal proceedings had been completed.

“Longstanding practice has been to release such material only after prosecutors and city investigators have finished their investigation,” Emanuel wrote. “The reason for that was to prevent potential witnesses from tailoring their stories to fit the evidence.”

When asked about the discrepancy between Emanuel’s claim and the settlement’s final language, the mayor’s deputy communications director, Adam Collins, told The Daily Beast:

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“We’ve been saying publicly for months that the city always intended that the video would be released as soon as the investigation is complete,” he said. “We have been clear all along that our intention was to release the video as soon as the investigation was complete.”

Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department also said, “since April of last year the administration has said publicly that the city always intended to release the video as soon as the investigation was complete.”

But the settlement agreement never required the McDonald family’s attorneys to hold the video until an investigation was completed. Instead, over the objections of the McDonald estate, Platt and the city pressed for language that would keep the video hidden far beyond the end of investigations and until as long as a criminal trial was concluded.

Not only do the emails show the effort to cover up what really happened to Laquan McDonald went to the top of the Emanuel administration, they also show the mayor’s office was pulling strings at the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which, as its name indicates, should be independent.

A day after the settlement was approved, Emanuel’s deputy communications director complained to his staff that an IPRA spokesperson did not report to him before speaking to a New York Times reporter.

“I found out a bit ago that IPRA’s PIO talked to Monica [Davey] about the structure of IPRA and how they operate without checking in with me (and despite the fact I had already reached out to coordinate earlier in the day),” Collins wrote on April 15.

The email is important because it shows that Emanuel’s office was not just suppressing information about McDonald’s death, but also controlling how the agency responsible for investigating police killings speaks to the press about its own processes.

McCaffrey, the Law Department spokesman, defended coordination between the mayor’s office and IPRA.

“Coordinating with city agencies on press statements is completely separate from IPRA’s independent investigative work, which our office is not involved in,” he said in a statement. 

Emanuel told Chicago Tonight in a December interview that “the system did not work in this situation” because there was no transparency on the part of the Law Department, IPRA, or Emanuel’s top communications staffers, the emails show.

But the “system” is designed to control the message and not let the message control Rahm Emanuel.