In a sworn deposition made public over the weekend, an ex-aide to embattled Chicago Ald. Jim Gardiner said the alderman was obsessed over criticism on his ward’s Facebook page, referring to his detractors as “rats” and vowing to rid the ward of them.
“He would constantly make comments to me such as, ‘I’m going to eradicate the ward of rats, and I’m not talking about the kind with four legs,’ ” Tanya King, who served as Gardiner’s chief of staff early in his tenure, testified under oath in September as part of an ongoing lawsuit over Gardiner’s Facebook practices. “He had an agenda to go after certain people once he was in office.”
King, who left Gardiner’s office in 2019 after just six months on the job, described the alderman’s allegedly long list of perceived enemies, including the commissioner of the Six Corners Association, the owner of a Portage Park yoga studio, and an elderly community activist who’d been critical of him in the past.
“She was older, had grayish hair, she wore glasses,” King testified about the activist, according to a transcript filed Saturday in U.S. District Court. “He really hated her. He really had it in for her.”
In a deposition of his own, Gardiner denied having had much to do at all with monitoring his Facebook page, saying he left it mostly to his employees — including King — to make sure that no one was posting harassing material “that would demean others or dox somebody or try to bring any type of unnecessary insults toward someone.”
The goal of his ward Facebook page was to simply to have “a dialogue … without feeling, you know, threatened,” the alderman said in the Sept. 20 deposition, which was done by video from his mother’s house.
Gardiner also said that he believed King had cleared the blocking of certain individuals with the Chicago Board of Ethics, according to the deposition transcript.
The public filing of the depositions are the latest in a string of controversy for Gardiner, a Chicago firefighter who is seeking a second term in the city election next month after a roller coaster four years in office.
The lawsuit filed in 2021 by 45th Ward resident Pete Czosnyka and five others alleged Gardiner violated the First Amendment rights of constituents who were critical of him on social media by deleting their comments from his official Facebook page and blocking them from posting in the future.
Gardiner’s attorney has argued that even if the alderman deleted certain comments or Facebook posts from his ward’s Facebook page, he is immune from civil damages “because he was engaged in a discretionary government function” at the time.
In addition to that case, Gardiner and his ward boss and right-hand man, Charles Sikanich, are facing another federal lawsuit alleging they had a man harassed, intimidated, and ultimately falsely arrested after he’d picked up a cellphone that Gardiner’s ward superintendent had inadvertently left at a 7-Eleven.
Sikanich, meanwhile, is scheduled to go on trial in March on state weapons charges alleging he was trying to sell an illegal MP 40 machine gun.
Meanwhile, Gardiner is also under federal criminal investigation involving his conduct in office, including whether he retaliated against constituents for political purposes, sources have told the Tribune. Investigators are also looking into allegations of potential political corruption, sources said. No charges have been filed in that ongoing probe.
Gardiner did not respond to messages left Monday at his ward office. His attorney, Thomas Carroll, was not immediately available for comment.
The Facebook lawsuit alleged Gardiner created a Facebook page specifically for his role as a public official, making it subject to First Amendment protections. The plaintiffs alleged Gardiner permanently banned them from commenting on the page and also retaliated in various ways, including taking screen shots of their posts and directing supporters to attack or harass them online.
In one instance, according to the suit, Gardiner posted a video on Facebook of him visiting Czosnyka’s block on North Menard Avenue in October 2020 with a caption thanking “our friends who came out today to acknowledge our efforts to improve long overlooked infrastructure issues on their street.”
In the post, which Gardiner ended with the hashtag “#Besties,” Czosnyka could be seen in the background, standing on his porch.
In his deposition, Gardiner repeatedly said he could not recall why he put the “Besties” hashtag on the post or decided to film the video right in front of Czosnyka’s home, even though he’d been blocked from commenting on the ward’s Facebook page.
“We often go out into the community and tell the community what projects we’re working on, and we often make mention of where we are,” Gardiner said, according to the transcript.
“Was it a sarcastic joke about how much bad blood between yourself and Mr. Czosnyka?” asked the plaintiff’s attorney, Adele Nicholas.
“I don’t have any bad blood with Pete Czosnyka,” Gardiner replied.
In her testimony, King said that from the moment he took office, Gardiner was on the Facebook page “24/7″ obsessing over posts and responding to them constantly.
“He would text me at six o’clock in the morning, ‘Did you see this?’ ” she said. “He would call me at nine o’clock at night, ‘Did you see this?’ It was constant.”
She also said that Gardiner was well aware of guidance from the city’s Board of Ethics over how aldermen should administer their ward’s social media pages, but that she never tried to get him to institute his own written policy because he was ”very difficult to work with.”
“He would threaten. He would constantly question loyalties,” King testified, according to the transcript. “And you always knew kind of how far you could go with him. And a lot of times there were just fights I didn’t want to take.”
U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman is expected to rule on dueling motions for summary judgment in the case sometime this year.
In denying a previous motion by Gardiner’s attorney to dismiss the allegations, Coleman wrote that court precedent clearly states “when the government or a government official uses a social media account for official business, the interactive portions of the social media platforms are public forums for First Amendment purposes.”
Gardiner, whose Northwest Side ward contains portions of Old Irving Park, Jefferson Park and Portage Park, is in a six-way race in the Feb. 28 city election.