State Rep. Carroll, who clashed with Edelson over big TikTok settlement, faces more public misconduct accusations

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A north suburban Democratic state lawmaker is now under fire amid accusations he was among those who attempted to pressure a female staffer to abort her unborn child.

However, it does not mark the first time State Rep. Jonathan Carroll, D-Northbrook, has been publicly accused of attempting to abuse his office’s power, after a prominent class action lawyer also accused the state lawmaker of meddling in a dispute over a class action settlement with TikTok that was worth millions of dollars in fees to a legal team that included Carroll’s now estranged wife.

Carroll is on the ballot this fall, defending the seat in Illinois’ 57th House District, which he has held since 2017.

Carroll is opposed by Republican Rory Welch, of Northfield.

The district covers much of northwest Cook County, including all or portions of Arlington Heights, Prospect Heights, Northbrook, Buffalo Grove, Wheeling and Des Plaines, among other communities.

Recently, a former Carroll staffer, identified as Elly Fawcett-Neal, has publicly accused Carroll of firing her this summer after she became pregnant and refused his alleged demands to get an abortion. Her claims were first posted on social media, which was covered by blogger Rich Miller at CapitolFax. She then repeated the allegations in a report published by Politico.

Carroll has denied Fawcett-Neal’s claims, saying in a statement published by Politico: “I take these allegations very seriously and I believe they should be reviewed by the Legislative Inspector General. While I have not been informed of any official complaint, I plan to request such an investigation myself. My office and I will cooperate fully, and the investigation will guide further actions.”

Fawcett-Neal said she has also filed a complaint with the LIG’s office. The Cook County Record has obtained an account of events, purportedly filed by Fawcett-Neal with the LIG’s office concerning her time employed by Carroll.

The new claims against Carroll come about a year since he was also accused by prominent Chicago class action law firm Edelson P.C. of also attempting to use his office to secure a desired personal outcome.

TikTok millions

Last November, Edelson filed a brief in Chicago federal court, specifically accusing the state lawmaker of attempting to pressure Edelson into dropping an objection to a $92 million class action settlement with the operators of the popular social media video site, TikTok – a settlement his now estranged wife completed as co-lead counsel in the class action lawsuit.

This summer, a Chicago federal judge overruled objections from Edelson and others, approving the settlement in the class action lawsuit accusing TikTok of violating the rights of users under Illinois’ stringent biometrics privacy law.

Known as the Illinois Biometric Privacy Act (BIPA), the law has been used by a growing cadre of plaintiffs’ trial lawyers, notably including the Edelson firm, to press potentially massive class action lawsuits against a wide range of businesses of all types and sizes.

To date, the law has mostly targeted employers, accusing them of improperly requiring workers to scan fingerprints on employee timeclocks to track their work hours or for security purposes, such as verifying the identities of those accessing medicine lockers in hospitals, cash rooms at retail stores or secure critical logistics hubs, like freight rail yards.

The Edelson firm and others have also used the law to target big tech companies, like Facebook, Google and TikTok.

The law has thus far proven to be a boon to those law firms, generating many millions in fees for the lawyers.

Facebook, for instance, famously agreed to settle BIPA-related claims for $650 million, while Google agreed to pay $100 million to end a lawsuit against them over photo face scans.

Employers have agreed to pay far less, with most settlements ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to a few million, though some settlements have run as much as $50 million.

And lawyers typically collect fees ranging from 15% to 35% of the total settlement.

Edelson, for instance, was among the team of lawyers that got a cut of $97.5 million in fees from the Facebook settlement.

The law’s power comes from the liberal and permissive interpretation of its reach and scope. Under rulings thus far from the Illinois Supreme Court and others, the law has been interpreted to allow plaintiffs to press their claims, even if they were never actually harmed by any scans of their biometrics.

Under the rulings, plaintiffs need only claim a business somehow violated one of the BIPA law’s technical notice and consent provisions to trigger potentially staggering damage awards against even a modest sized company. By some estimates, damage awards against larger companies could quickly run into the hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars, should a case go to trial.

To prove that point, a jury earlier in October ordered freight rail operator BNSF to pay $228 million to a group of truck drivers who claimed they were improperly required to scan their handprints to access freight rail yards in Illinois. BNSF says it will appeal that verdict.

The potential for crippling economic losses, for violations that result in no real harm to anyone, has prompted business advocacy groups to call on Illinois state lawmakers to revise the law, to reduce the economic risk and strain on Illinois’ economy from such lawsuits.

To date, however, those pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears in Illinois’ Democrat-dominated General Assembly, where campaign funds for the Democratic majority is heavily bankrolled by a large and steady stream of campaign cash from trial lawyers, including firms behind many of the BIPA lawsuits.

To ensure lawmakers don’t change the law, court documents indicate Edelson, at least, has hired a lobbyist to protect the lawyers’ relatively easy access to big fee demands under BIPA.

In 2019, a group of class action lawsuits were uploaded in federal court, claiming TikTok violated the privacy rights of users, particularly minors, by scanning their faces in videos uploaded to the platform, without first obtaining their consent.

The lawsuits were consolidated in federal court into a single action. The lawsuits were led by a group of lawyers that included attorney Katrina Carroll, a partner at Carlson Lynch, of Chicago.

After TikTok failed to defeat the claims, the company agreed to settle the lawsuits for $92 million, with the plaintiffs’ attorneys, including Carroll, collecting about $30 million in fees.

‘A multi-front campaign of retaliation?’

The deal drew strong objections from many, including the Edelson firm, which represented one of the objectors. The firm would also unsuccessfully attempt to object on its own, claiming it had standing because the firm itself used TikTok.

Generally, the objections to the settlement contended the deal was far too low and would generate far too much in attorney fees for too little return for TikTok users included in the class action.

 Edelson and others, for instance, said the settlement should be worth at least $200 million.

U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee, however, disagreed, ultimately upholding the settlement, granting final approval this summer.

However, before that approval order was issued, the judge first heard arguments over accusations leveled by Edelson against Katrina Carroll and her husband, State Rep. Jonathan Carroll.

In the November 2021 filing, Edelson asserts the objection they filed to the TikTok settlement allegedly infuriated Katrina Carroll, who then allegedly launched a “multi-front campaign” of “retaliation” against the Edelson firm.

That campaign allegedly included threats leveled by State Rep. Carroll in conversations with Edelson’s lobbyist and with the Edelson firm, directly. In those conversations, State Rep. Carroll allegedly threatened to back reforms to the BIPA law, potentially including “gutting BIPA.”

“Rep. Carroll specifically brought up Edelson’s objection for its client in this case, noted that his wife was class counsel, and explained that she had worked hard on the case,” Edelson wrote in the Nov. 2021 motion.  “He (Carroll) then specifically asked the lobbyist to pass on a request to Mr. Edelson: withdraw the objection for his firm’s client and apologize to Ms. Carroll to avoid any issues moving forward.”

According to the motion, Edelson founder Jay Edelson “received the Carrolls’ message to him loud and clear: that continuing to pursue this objection on behalf of his client will negatively affect his firm’s ability to pursue their legislative agenda and result in the further dissemination of inaccurate and disparaging statements about him.”

Edelson did not withdraw the objection, which purportedly led to “consequences” against the firm. While those alleged consequences may have been spelled out in the brief, the section in which they appear to be discussed was redacted by the court.

Ultimately, the BIPA law has not been changed, though a bill reforming the law was advanced in the committee on which State Rep. Carroll serves.

The Carrolls have denied those conversations with Edelson, saying instead the conversations with the lobbyist were more benign.

In a filing, Katrina Carroll said Edelson’s lobbyist contacted them to discuss the proposed revisions to the law and asked for their support against efforts to reform the law.

She said State Rep. Carroll told Edelson’s lobbyist that Edelson’s criticism of the TikTok settlement was offensive. But she claims State Rep. Carroll never threatened Edelson or made any demands related to the settlement.

Calls for action

In the months since the fight with Edelson, State Rep. Carroll and Katrina Carroll filed for divorce.

The case remains pending.

As recently as this month, Katrina Carroll presented petitions to the court concerning child support and child custody arrangements, asking the court to issue orders requiring her estranged husband to contribute more to the care of their two children.

According to the filings, attempts to reach a mutually agreed arrangement have been complicated by State Rep. Carroll’s continuous travel and busy lifestyle.

In one of her motions, filed Oct. 12, Katrina Carroll asserts State Rep. Carroll has used money from his campaign funds to “pay personal bills, living expenses, travel, restaurant expenses” and also “enjoys numerous additional expensive meals paid for by lobbyists and political organizations.”

State Rep. Carroll did not respond to an emailed request for comment on those allegations from The Cook County Record.

However, as the divorce continues, State Rep. Carroll is also facing mounting questions and calls for action over accusations by Fawcett-Neal that he pressured her to get an abortion.

In an account provided to the Legislative Inspector General, and obtained by The Cook County Record, Fawcett-Neal said she took a job with Carroll’s office, even though she is a British national and politically more conservative than the progressive Democratic state lawmaker.

Fawcett-Neal claimed when she became pregnant around Christmas 2021, Carroll and his chief of staff, identified as Mike Amarilio, urged her to get an abortion or to give up her baby in adoption.

Fawcett-Neal claims State Rep. Carroll told her, if she kept the baby, she would need to find another job because he wouldn’t raise her salary to an amount he considered sufficient to support the child.

Allegedly, State Rep. Carroll told her to return to the United Kingdom or apply for other jobs because “he did not want to fund my lifestyle choices.”

Fawcett-Neal claimed a pattern of mistreatment in Carroll’s office as the campaign season kicked off and her pregnancy continued.

Fawcett-Neal claimed the choice of keeping the baby or losing her job was also complicated by her immigration status. If she were to lose her job, she feared she would be classified an “illegal immigrant” without health insurance.

She ultimately flew home to the UK, which she claimed was used as a pretense to fire her when doctors told her she could not fly home without risking her child’s health.

State Rep. Carroll did not reply to a request for comment from The Cook County Record. However, in reports published by Politico and Patch, he has denied Fawcett-Neal’s allegations and said he will ask the Legislative Inspector General to investigate the claims.

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and Gov. JB Pritzker, through a spokesperson, have called for investigations into the accusations, but have not yet called for the lawmaker to resign.

Election Day is scheduled for Nov. 8. Early voting has begun. Under Illinois law, mail-in ballots will be accepted up to 14 days after Election Day, so long as they are mailed by Nov. 8.

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October 28, 2022 at 06:45PM

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