Thursday, January 29, 2009

Developer Targets Bloggers in Chicago

A developer in Chicago is using the legal system to go after at least two blogs based in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. There are several very disturbing aspects to this story, including the possible involvement of the son of Alderman Helen Shiller (46th Ward, Uptown), an attorney who shares an office suite with the developer's attorney. First, let's quickly review the basics as reported in the current issue of News-Star: The attorney representing Wilson Yard developer Peter Holsten in the lawsuit filed against him by Fix Wilson Yard has subpoenaed Google seeking information about two Uptown blogs. News-Star learned that the blogs in question are Uptown Update and What the Helen. Each blog was notified by e-mail that they had been subpoenaed as third parties through Google and that they have until Feb. 4 to file a motion to quash the subpoena. Both blogs are maintained anonymously and neither is affiliated with Fix Wilson Yard. In December, the Uptown community group Fix Wilson Yard, which claims to represent more than 2,000 Chicago residents, filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago and Holsten Real Estate Development. The attorney is Thomas E. Johnson. His law firm is Johnson, Jones, Snelling, Gilbert & Davis, P.C., located at 36 S. Wabash Avenue, Suite 1310, Chicago. Another law firm in the same suite is Shiller, Rossiter & Co., LLC. The "Shiller" in that second firm is Brendan Shiller. Brendan's mother is Ald. Helen Shiller, who has championed developer Holsten's project at Wilson Yard and has been the subject of much criticism by the blogs in question. Additionally, Tom Johnson has been a financial contributor to Ald. Shiller's campaigns. All this proves is that Brendan Shiller shares a suite with Johnson's firm. One must admit, however, that the coincidence is stunning, and it begs the question: How involved is the Shiller family in this legal pursuit of Uptown Update and What The Helen? The most disturbing aspect of this, of course, is the fact that a developer is trying to suppress the free speech activities of a respected blog, Uptown Update. "What The Helen," a blog whose name is derived from Helen Shiller, the target of their critiques, has been defunct for about a year, so to stay in the present, let's concentrate on Uptown Update. Uptown Update (UU) is enormously popular; it achieved one million hits last week. Like What The Helen (WTH), UU has been critical of Shiller and of the Wilson Yard TIF project at Montrose and N. Sheridan. UU, however, has been somewhat more subtle than was WTH. Additionally, UU reports on a broad range of news in the Uptown neighborhood. In essence, UU is a virtual neighborhood newspaper, providing some commentary and a lot of hard news reporting, with excellent graphics and community events listings. It is not unusual to hear an Uptown resident say, "I saw that on Uptown Update." For a developer's attorney to use subpoenaes to identify the operators of UU and WTH is disturbing. If this action by Holsten's attorney is being done as an attempt to silence Uptown Update and, thereby, the comments made by community members on that blog, then it is frightening. There can be only one or two reasons why this is being done. Those reasons may be: 1) To simply intimidate the bloggers, with the possible intention of scaring them into either shutting down their blogs or to delete past references to Holsten and not make future posts about him or his Wilson Yard project; 2) To discover the bloggers' names to subsequently bring legal action against them. That legal action would most likely be charges of defamation or interfering with commerce; There could be other reasons, of course, but the most obvious ones would seem to be an intention to either intimidate and/or to bring legal action against the individuals behind the blogs if their real names are discovered. It should be noted, for whatever it's worth, that Holsten Development Capital has channeled a lot of money over the years to a number of Democrats in Illinois, including Ald. Helen Shiller (at least $10,000 to Citizens for Shiller, 2000 through January, 2006). A small sampling of other beneficiaries of his largesse includes Citizens for Lisa Madigan (over $12,000), Citizens for David Orr ($8,000), Citizens for Joe Moore (over $16,000), Citizens for the 48th Ward Democratic Party (over $3,700), Citizens for Mary Ann Smith (over $17,000) [Smith is the 48th Ward Alderman], Citizens for Carol Ronen (over $4,000), Friends of Edward M Burke (over $10,000). (Source) It should be noted that I am not implying anything illegal about the contributions referred to above. MORE DISTURBING ASPECTS As mentioned above, Ald. Helen Shiller's son Brendan is an attorney who shares a suite with Holsten's attorney, Tom Johnson. Holsten and Ald. Shiller have both been targets of harsh criticism in the blogs. Both, therefore, have the motivation to squelch the blogs. Both Holsten and Shiller have the means, or ability, to bring the legal tools to bear in order to attempt that. Let me stress that this is theory on my part, but to say the least, it seems unlikely that the Shillers were not aware of the pending subpoena before it was filed. IS HOLSTEN BEING HONEST? Developer Holsten told News-Star that he had no knowledge of the legal action: Holsten said that he was not aware that Google had been subpoenaed by his defense attorney for information about the blogs. "I tend to stay off the blogs," Holsten said "They can get pretty nasty." This may or may not be true, but it seems difficult to believe. While he might actually "stay off the blogs," as he claims, it seems unlikely that his attorney Tom Johnson would not make him aware of anything about him on the blogs that could be deemed problematic. As for Holsten staying off the blogs, Holsten Management Corporation is one of the most frequent visitors to Uptown Update. Now, are we to believe that one of Holsten's secretaries is reading UU, and nobody else in that office, and that no notes are being taken by said hypothetical secretary? Furthermore, it is hard to swallow Holsten's implication that his attorney is lobbing subpoenaes on his behalf without his knowledge. Why would Johnson be seeking the identities of the bloggers? If not for client Holsten, then for whom or for what purpose? Curiosity? Suppose Holsten is being honest about this. Is Helen Shiller behind it? As mentioned, Holsten and Shiller are allies in the Wilson Yard battle. Shiller undoubtedly sees the whole controversy as a threat to her political career in the 46th Ward. I'm not saying Shiller is behind it, but the question must be asked. WHO ELSE WILL BE TARGETED? At this time, the targets of this subpoena is Uptown Update and the defunct What The Helen blogs. However, plenty of other blogs and web sites have been critical of both Holsten and Ald. Shiller, and still more have republished or linked to posts on those blogs. If Holsten and/or Shiller are truly on a witch hunt, they may leave no stake unburned in their attempt to shut down free speech in Chicago's 46th Ward. Worse still, other politicians will be watching this action. If Holsten and friends prevail, it could set a very chilling precedent for citizen journalists nationwide. RELATED: Open Letter to Uptown Update: Expose Yourselves News-Star: "Trial Date Set!" Shiller comes out fighting What is Wilson Yard? City makes change to spur financing for Wilson Yard Tax increase may blunt Uptown’s economic boom UNC ENews - The Truth About Wilson Yard - Uptown Neighborhood Council UNC e-News: The latest on Wilson Yard, Vote, October 28, 2008 Is Illinois the Most Corrupt State? - Capitol Briefing Feds Sued by Community Organizations and Publishers, Charge Computer Searches Illegal Electronic Frontier Foundation CNB RSS Feed