‘Who are you loyal to?’ Complaints arose from Judge-elect ShawnTe Raines-Welch’s work in south suburbs

Meetings of the village of Dolton board of trustees often feature Mayor Tiffany Henyard and trustees speaking over one another and accusing the other of wrongdoing. The discord started months after Henyard took office in May 2021 and quickly escalated. Henyard canceled meetings and locked trustees out of the village hall. Earlier this year, five of the six trustees and the city clerk hosted meetings without the mayor.

All the while, as the conflict grew, the village’s legal counsel, ShawnTe Raines-Welch, remained quietly in the background.

“She has not been very visible for the village. You contact her via email? There’s no response,” said Dolton Trustee Kiana Belcher, who complained that Raines-Welch responds only to Henyard, not trustees.

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For more than a decade, Raines-Welch has worked as a municipal attorney for a half-dozen small municipalities in southern Cook County, where low-income residents and people of color make up the majority of the population. A municipal attorney, typically appointed by the mayor, is supposed to provide a wide gamut of counsel, including giving legal advice to elected officials, drafting ordinances, reviewing contracts, and ensuring that public meetings follow proper rules and procedures.

Her work, though, is now coming under scrutiny after Raines-Welch — who is married to Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch — defeated three others in the Democratic primary election last month for a 4th subcircuit seat on the Cook County Circuit Court. She faces no Republican opposition in the November general election.

In interviews with Injustice Watch, several current and former municipal officials in three suburbs where Raines-Welch has worked — Blue Island and Calumet City in addition to Dolton — questioned her ability to be fair and impartial on the bench based on their experiences with her.

The officials, whose municipalities all face intergovernmental discord, alleged that Raines-Welch’s failure to intervene and address their concerns emboldened their mayors to continue their divisive actions.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Raines-Welch’s campaign said such corporation counsel serve as lawyers for the municipality — “not as the parliamentarian, not as the enforcer of good manners at public meetings, and not as the political referee between disgruntled trustees in the minority block and the executive branch.” The spokesperson called the complaints against Raines-Welch “manufactured, inflated, and organized” by her campaign opponents and allies and said they had “failed with voters.” He also sent statements from officials in two other governmental bodies in which Raines-Welch has worked, Sauk Village and the Maywood Park District, which praised her work ethic and service to their communities.

A spokesperson for the Ancel Glink law firm, where Raines-Welch is a partner, also issued an emailed statement saying Raines-Welch “was heavily recruited and hired in 2018” because of “her reputation among her attorney colleagues and clients as a smart, fair, and well-regarded attorney. We often receive compliments from clients about ShawnTe’s representation, and we are happy to refute any claim to the contrary.”

The Dolton trustees, so dissatisfied with Raines-Welch, hired counsel last September to answer their questions about issues that come up for a vote and advise them on procedures and rules. Belcher said hiring an outside lawyer was necessary because Raines-Welch was not responding to their questions about alleged violations of ordinances by the mayor.

In April, the trustees sued Henyard for allegedly violating the Freedom of Information Act and several municipal ordinances that require her to obtain their approval before spending funds or making personnel decisions. The lawsuit is pending. A spokesperson for the mayor did not respond to questions about the lawsuit.

Margaret Weir, a professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said this kind of intergovernmental discord is common in small towns where politics often come down to friendships and local connections. Weir said these communities often lack oversight, allowing problems to go unchallenged and public resources to be diverted to legal expenses because of the infighting.

Some officials from the municipalities in which Raines-Welch has worked said she profited off the political tumult and resulting legal troubles in their small suburbs. From June 2021 to March 2022, for instance, her law firm billed the village of Dolton more than $63,000 for 316 hours of work, according to invoices obtained by Injustice Watch through a FOIA request.

Illustration by Verónica Martinez for Injustice Watch

Illustration by Verónica Martinez for Injustice Watch

A pawn in a tug of war in Blue Island

Domingo Vargas hired Raines-Welch as the corporation counsel for the city of Blue Island shortly after he won an election as mayor in 2013. Vargas said state Rep. Robert Rita of Blue Island recommended Raines-Welch’s then-law firm, Sanchez Daniels and Hoffman, and said she would be a great asset to the city.

But Vargas said he came to realize that Raines-Welch was inexperienced in municipal law, having previously practiced personal injury law. He also said he grew concerned that her marriage to Welch, who was then a first-term state representative and also a partner at the same law firm, affected her advice to him and the city.

Vargas alleged that Raines-Welch was a pawn used by powerful political leaders in a tug of war over who had the most power. “They wanted to run the city, and I said, ‘No, I’m the mayor,’” he said. The issue came down to, “Who are you loyal to?” Vargas said. “The person who’s paying your salary or somebody else?”

Raines-Welch and her law firm continued to represent Blue Island until shortly after Vargas won reelection in 2017. Though she didn’t work that full year for the city, Raines-Welch billed for 340 hours, making more than $60,000 for the firm, according to invoices obtained through a FOIA request.

In moving to fire her, Vargas alleged that his main concern was what he considered her divided loyalties. When he sought to remove Raines-Welch at a public meeting in October 2017, though, Vargas wasn’t specific about his objections, saying only he “lost confidence in the attorney-client relationship with the law firm,” according to a November 2017 article from the Daily Southtown.

Several aldermen, however, voted down Vargas’ motion to hire a new law firm and ultimately walked out of the meeting.

“That basically started World War III for the next four years,” Vargas told Injustice Watch.

He lost his bid for a third term last year to then-Ald. Fred Bilotto.

Vargas said his work with Raines-Welch has left him questioning whether she has the fairness and experience to be an effective judge. Before the primary vote, Raines-Welch received mostly positive ratings from bar associations, though the Illinois State Bar Association found her “not qualified” and noted “concerns about her lack of trial experience and the depth and breadth of her overall legal experience.”

Manuel Sanchez, the founder and managing partner of Sanchez Daniels and Hoffman, said he was unaware of any issues with Raines-Welch and said his experience with her led him to think that she was “more than qualified” to be a judge.

Conflict in Calumet City

Nyota Figgs, the Calumet City clerk since 2011, said she has been battling with state Rep. Thaddeus Jones ever since he became mayor of Calumet City last year. Figgs said Jones stripped her of her duties as an elected official, changed the locks to her office, and called the police at least once to remove her from the city hall.

In an interview with Injustice Watch, Figgs said she tried informing Raines-Welch, the city’s corporation counsel, of the harassment, but she never received assistance. In an email provided to Injustice Watch, Figgs wrote to Jones on June 7, 2021, that the mayor’s actions were “direct retaliation” and “workplace bullying.” Raines-Welch was copied on the email.

Other elected officials in Calumet City have also complained that Raines-Welch has failed to keep the mayor in check. In a city council meeting almost a year ago, one item on the agenda called for a discussion on hiring an office manager for Figgs’ office. After Alds. Deandre Tillman and Michael Navarrete requested information about the job, Figgs asked to speak, but Jones did not call on her, according to a transcript of the July 29 meeting.

After a bit of back-and-forth, the aldermen asked Raines-Welch about making a motion to appeal Jones’ decision to allow Figgs to speak. Raines-Welch said yes, citing “Robert’s Rules of Order.” But once the aldermen passed the motion, Jones still did not allow Figgs to speak. Figgs tried asking Raines-Welch for clarification, but she did not respond, according to the transcript.

This incident led Ald. James Patton to file a complaint last August against Raines-Welch with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, alleging that she failed in her job as legal counsel for the city by allowing the mayor to ignore a valid motion. Three days later, the disciplinary agency notified Patton that Raines-Welch did not violate any rules, according to a letter from the ARDC shared with Injustice Watch. Misconduct complaints against attorneys are typically kept secret unless disciplinary action is taken. Raines-Welch has never been disciplined, according to records from the ARDC.

Patton, who runs a political consulting company, alleged that he faced retaliation after filing the complaint against Raines-Welch. Jones warned his Democratic colleagues in the state House of Representatives against using Patton’s company for their campaigns, according to an email made public by a statehouse publication. Jones wrote that Patton and his company “are not loyal Democrats, and they have insulted a member of our Democratic Caucus and our leadership,” the email said.

Patton, who said he lost business because of the dispute, said his company sent Jones a cease-and-desist letter, accusing him of wrongfully interfering with his business.

In an email to Injustice Watch, Jones, who declined an interview through a spokesperson, defended Raines-Welch as “an excellent, competent attorney” and expressed satisfaction with her work for Calumet City.

Last October, Figgs filed a lawsuit against Jones alleging that the mayor violated multiple municipal codes and asking that he be required to restore her duties as city clerk.

Just 16 days later, Jones responded with a lawsuit, alleging that Figgs destroyed city records without city approval — a charge that Figgs denied.

Both lawsuits are still pending.

Figgs told Injustice Watch that Raines-Welch’s alleged inaction in her dispute with the mayor has left her concerned that she won’t be “objective enough” as a judge, saying she feared that her decisions on the bench could be influenced by politics.

This article was produced in partnership with Report for America.

Special thanks to the local newspapers covering the discord between trustees/alderpeople and their mayors in these south Cook County suburbs. Reporting from The Southland Journal and the Lansing Journal greatly enriched our understanding of the dynamics within these communities.