Federal Judge Orders Cook County IL to Test Jail Water After Inmate Files Lawsuit, $25 Billion Lien

By Barbara Hollingsworth | July 12, 2013 | 2:39 PM EDT


Cook County Jail (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) -- A federal judge has warned officials of Cook County, Illinois to stop stalling and obey an order he handed down two months ago to test the drinking water in the county jail.

The order was issued in response to a federal lawsuit and $25 billion lien that were filed against the county by inmate Larry Banks, who described the jail water as discolored, smelling like sewerage, and unfit for human consumption.

The lawsuit claims that the jail’s antiquated pipes create “a sort of ‘soft kill’…whereby inmates’ lives are threatened, injured and shortened” by not having access to clean drinking water.

Banks, who has been incarcerated as a pre-trial detainee on attempted murder charges since 2006, also accused the Chicago Department of Water Management of fraud for not taking water directly from the jail’s drinking fountains, cells or shower facilities when submitting its EPA-mandated water quality reports.

On May 22, U.S. District Magistrate Judge Matthew Kennelly ordered the jail's water supply to be independently tested over the county's objections. (See May 22 order - Banks.pdf)

A month later, on June 17, Kennelly ordered Cook County to answer Banks' motion to compel the county to proceed with testing the water.(See Banks motion to compel.pdf)

At a subsequent hearing on July 2, Kennelly reminded county officials that he had entered an order for the water to be tested two months earlier and that he expected them to comply before the trial, which is scheduled to begin July 31.

A spokesman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez told CNSNews.com on Friday that the “water was ordered tested, it has not been tested yet, but it will be. That is our only comment.”

As part of his lawsuit, Banks also recorded a federal lis pendens on Nov. 29, 2012 with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds. Bond ratings firms Standard & Poor’s, Fitch’s and Moody’s have all been notified, as has Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Since the City of Chicago sells the water to Cook County, it has also been named as a defendant for allegedly “knowingly placing into the stream of commerce a tainted and dangerous water supply masquerading as potable.”

The lawsuit has gotten virtually no media attention in Chicago, even though Mayor Emanuel has made updating the city’s antiquated water system a top priority of his administration.

Previous efforts to privatize Chicago’s water system proved unsuccessful when Mayer Brown Ltd., the law firm retained by the city to assist with the sale, was unable to find a buyer.

On Dec. 5, 2012, a week after Banks' $25 billion lien was recorded, Moody’s gave Cook County “a negative outlook,” but a spokesman for the ratings company told CNSNews.com that the lien did not play a part in that determination.

However, he noted that the county’s bonds may be downgraded in the next 12 to 24 months due to unfunded pension liabilities and unresolved financial problems in the Cook County Health and Hospital System.