Lawsuit: Progress Illinois smeared health care exec to boost Giannoulias campaign; Suit is ‘simply harassment,’ says Progress IL

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A progressive social media publication which supported Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias in the race for Illinois Secretary of State has been hit with a defamation lawsuit for promoting allegedly false claims that a prominent and politically connected Chicago health care executive had steered a $15 million contract to the husband of Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, who was Giannoulias’ rival in the contest to be the Democratic nominee.

On Aug. 24, Suzet McKinney filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court against Progress Illinois and its principal, Gerald Morrison, alleging Morrison and his publication improperly smeared her name, and all but concocted the corruption allegations against her and Valencia.

In response, Morrison told The Cook County Record that he believed the lawsuit was frivolous and would not hold up in court, as it was politically motivated to protect Valencia and her political organization against corruption claims. 

"This is just harassment, and a continuation of Valencia’s campaign tactics," said Morrison.

In her complaint, McKinney says she has built a reputation as “distinguished public health expert, business executive and community leader, and a nationally recognized expert in emergency preparedness and response.”

According to the complaint, McKinney currently serves as a principal and the “Director of Life Sciences at a prominent life sciences company.” According to biographies posted online, McKinney is identified as director of life sciences at Chicago-based real estate development and management firm, Sterling Bay.

Previously, according to the complaint, McKinney served as the chief executive officer and executive director of the Illinois Medical District, overseeing “560 acres of medical research facilities, labs, a biotech business incubator, universities, raw land development areas, four hospitals, and more than 40 healthcare-related facilities.”

Before that, the complaint said, McKinney served as deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response at the Chicago Department of Public Health, and was appointed by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to serve as “operations lead” for the state’s alternate care facilities, identified as a “network of alternate medical locations designed to relieve an overly burdened hospital system during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Morrison said McKinney also served as a manager on Valencia’s campaign for Secretary of State.

McKinney’s complaint centers on a series of posts published to Twitter by Progress Illinois, and Morrison, by extension, beginning amid the contentious race for the Democratic nomination for Illinois Secretary of State between Giannoulias and Valencia.

In April 2022, according to the complaint, Progress Illinois began tweeting repeatedly concerning a “multi-million dollar contract” allegedly awarded to Valencia’s husband. According to the complaint, Progress Illinois’ tweets accused McKinney directly, saying she “’gave Ana [Valencia’s] husband a multi-million dollar contract [and] tried to convince [others] to do the same,’ and that she participated in a ‘scheme to enrich Valencia and her husband.’”

Progress Illinois allegedly then further sent tweets accusing McKinney of attempting to cover up the alleged dealings, and of participating in other “business schemes.”

In May 2022, according to the complaint, Progress Illinois allegedly accused McKinney of “ghost contracting,” allegedly claiming Valencia had “’set up’ her husband with Dr. McKinney, ‘and got him awarded almost $100K in fees,’” from the Illinois Medical District, for which he allegedly did little to no work.

In a tweet on May 27, Progress Illinois allegedly implied McKinney “had engaged in criminal conduct,” asking the question: “Isn’t that the sort of thing that federal grand juries look at?"

The contracts between the IMD and businesses connected with Valencia’s husband, Reyhad Kazmi, were also discussed in other reports published by various news outlets, including notably by reporter Mark Maxwell, then with WCIA TV in Champaign.

However, according to the complaint, McKinney nonetheless claims the allegations leveled in the Progress Illinois tweets were false.

“If they did not already know their falsity, the Defendants (Morrison and Progress Illinois) could easily have ascertained the falsity of their statements by contacting officials of the IMD, reviewing its public records, contacting Dr. McKinney, contacting Ms. Valencia, or contacting her husband,” McKinney wrote in her complaint.

“… Their motivation in publishing these statements was malicious in the classic sense – to damage Dr. McKinney and thereby to also inflict harm on Ms. Valencia, harming their reputation by conveying that Dr. McKinney, who as a public official has been especially scrupulous about the importance of preserving her reputation for integrity, was dishonest, corrupt, and worse.”

The complaint asserted every single claim presented by Progress Illinois as “fact” was false or incorrect.

According to the complaint, “there was never any multi-million dollar contract, let alone a $15 million contract,” and “the contract in question involved payment of approximately $100,000 over several years to an entity neither owned nor controlled by Ms. Valencia’s husband” and Valencia allegedly had nothing to do with that contract.

Further, the complaint asserted McKinney was never in position to approve any contract, as Illinois Medical District contracts must be approved by the IMD board, and McKinney was not a member of that board.

“Nor did Dr. McKinney participate in (or know of any) ‘scheme’ to ‘enrich’ the company with which Ms. Valencia’s husband was affiliated,” McKinney said in her complaint.

According to the complaint, Progress Illinois has refused McKinney’s requests to delete or retract the allegedly defamatory tweets.

“On information and belief, Defendants (Progress Illinois and Morrison), who have been closely affiliated with Alexi Giannoulias and his campaign for Secretary of State, actively attempted to assist the Giannoulias campaign by defaming Dr. McKinney as a way of also harming his opponent in the Democratic primary for Secretary of State, Ms. Valencia,” McKinney’s complaint said.

“On information and belief, Mr. Giannoulias and his close advisors knew of and approved the defamation campaign wages against Dr. McKinney” by Progress Illinois, the complaint added.

Giannoulias won the Democratic nomination and is facing Republican State Rep. Dan Brady in the race for Illinois Secretary of State this fall.

Neither Giannoulias nor his campaign are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The complaint leveled two counts of defamation, one each against Morrison and Progress Illinois.

McKinney has asked the court to award her unspecified damages and to order Progress Illinois to delete the tweets and issue a retraction.

In an interview with The Cook County Record, Morrison said he looks forward to the opportunity to "air out" the case in open court. He said his team is ready to "drop bundles of FOIAs" to "get everything" about the contracts in question.

Morrison noted published reports indicating Kazmi and his business ventures are at the center of other investigations in other jurisdictions, as well, including in New Orleans. 

And Morrison noted the IMD contract McKinney’s complaint disputes was cancelled by the IMD shortly after McKinney stopped working for the Medical District. Morrison said he has numerous IMD emails concerning the alleged contract, including an email he says is from the Medical District’s chief financial officer asserting the contract with the company allegedly connected to Kazmi was "onerous."

Morrison said McKinney’s lawsuit represents the Valencia campaign following through on numerous lawsuit threats against Progress Illinois and others who reported the alleged activities involving Valencia and Kazmi. He said Progress Illinois was chosen as a target for the initial lawsuit, to deliver a message to news outlets who might choose to continue digging into the allegations against Valencia and her husband.

"This is what rich and powerful do to little people," said Morrison. "This is a frivolous case, simply meant to harass and make us spend money on legal bills."

McKinney is represented in the action by attorneys Nancy DePodesta and Michael A. Jacobson, of the firm of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, of Chicago.

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August 27, 2022 at 10:32PM

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