Online classifieds site Backpage.com is alleging in federal court that Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, in his effort to shut down the site on grounds it facilitates sex trafficking, wrongly withheld thousands of discovery documents from Backpage, fraudulently claiming the documents were confidential, because they were the product of an attorney-client relationship.
In 2015, the Dallas-based Backpage obtained a preliminary injunction in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, to block Dart and his office from trying discourage credit card companies from doing business with Backpage. Dart was doing so, because Backpage had allegedly not done enough to help police purge sex trafficking advertisements, Backpage said.
Backpage characterized Dart's communications with the companies as “threats.”
As a result of Dart's actions, Backpage said credit card companies stopped doing business with Backpage, the country's second-largest online provider of classified advertising. Backpage claimed Dart's actions were “unconstitutional,” with the appeals panel noting they believed Dart was trying to “crush Backpage.”
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
Dart has been fighting Backpage's attempt to turn the preliminary injunction into a permanent one.
During these proceedings, Backpage said it asked Dart to turn over documents Dart accumulated in connection with his campaign against Backpage. Of these requested documents, Backpage said Dart refused to furnish a couple of hundred documents, comprising thousands of pages.
Dart said he did not have to hand over the documents, because they were the products of his client-attorney relationship with Stephanie Zugschwert, a former policy analyst and onetime lawyer whom Dart hired to devise a strategy to “take down” Backpage, as Zugschwert said, according to court papers.
The documents in question were either written by or sent in 2015 to Zugschwert, who was a licensed lawyer from 1993 to 1996 in Minnesota.
Dart acknowledged Zugschwert did not have a law license, but nonetheless he and his office believed they were “communicating with an attorney” when they worked with her.
Dart eventually fired Zugschwert, prompting her to file suit for wrongful termination, which brought to light inside information about her true status, Backpage claimed.
In her suit, Zugschwert noted she did not work for Dart as an attorney or “in a legal capacity.” In fact, while she was still employed, Zugschwert alleged she learned Dart was trying to “thwart” Backpage's request for documents by claiming Zugschwert was his attorney.
As the struggle with Backpage continued, Dart and his counsel took steps to “conceal and backfill their false claims of attorney-client privilege,” such as urging Zugschwert to get an Illinois law license. Zugschwert said she resisted these moves and told Dart's people she would “tell the truth” if asked whether she was Dart's attorney; this statement led to her immediate termination, Zugschwert alleged.
The Cook County Sheriff's Office simply “lied” about Zugschwert's job status, Backpaged alleged.
As a result of this alleged “fraud,” Backpage on Dec. 15 asked District Judge John Tharp to force Dart to release the documents, and order Dart and his attorneys to pay the costs Backpage incurred in battling for those documents.
Backpage also accused Dart of “dragging out” the case, saying, “It is long since time for this case to be briefed and decided on the merits.”
The judge on Dec. 18 took the motion under advisement, directing the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to reply to Backpage’s motion by Jan. 12.
Dart is a Democrat, who has served as Cook County Sheriff since 2007. He has been represented in this action by the firms of Kozacky, Weitzel & McGrath, and Kirkland & Ellis, both of Chicago, and by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office.
Backpage is represented by the following firms: Schiff Hardin, of Chicago; Henze, Cook & Murphy, of Phoenix; and Davis Wright Tremaine, which has offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C.