By Dermot Connolly
A verdict will be delivered on April 28 in the case against five people who were arrested last year for protesting the presence of Sharon Brannigan on the Palos Township Board of Trustees.
The five activists stood trial Monday at the Bridgeview Courthouse.
The defendants are leaders of an umbrella group called the ResignBrannigan Coalition who have been demonstrating against Brannigan at Palos Township board meetings for nearly two years, calling for her resignation since five Facebook posts seen as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab came to light.
The attorney for the defendants, Jim Fennerty, is representing them pro-bono. He questioned Brannigan about the Facebook posts over the objection of Assistant State’s Attorney Erica Boorstein, who felt bringing them into evidence would be prejudicial.
Judge Margaret Ogarek presided over the bench trial of the five individuals charged with the misdemeanor offense of criminal trespassing to government property following a rowdy Palos Township Board of Trustees meeting last June 10.
Fennerty showed video surveillance of the meeting in question captured on township cameras. It showed a boisterous crowd loudly chanting phrases like “racist” and “hey, hey, ho, ho, Sharon Brannigan has got to go” throughout the meeting.
“They were not warned and given an opportunity to leave of their own accord before being arrested,” said Fennerty, who said that was a requirement for being guilty of trespassing.
Brannigan signed the complaints against the five people charged: Muhammad Sakari, 31, and Husam Marajda, 28, of Chicago; Samar Alhato, 22, of Worth; Bassem S. Karver, 30, of Tinley Park; and Tammy J. Georgiou, 50, of Palos Hills. Brannigan was also one of three prosecution witnesses called to the stand by Boorstein to testify in the Bridgeview courtroom about the events leading to the arrests.
The other witnesses were Frank Esposito, owner of Professional Protection Services Inc., and security officer Todd Damansky. Township officials said last summer that they decided to hire a security firm to maintain order at meetings because the chanting of protesters prevented them from conducting business.
The security guards explained that they did not carry firearms and did not have the power to arrest, so their duty was to escort people out of the room when they were pointed out by township officials. The five people arrested were escorted out and then handcuffed in the parking lot by Palos Hills police, whom Brannigan said she called to the scene.
Esposito said he personally did not give any directions to leave, but took the lead from the township officials who “gave us the nod” to escort the five people out “because they continued yelling and chanting” after being told to quiet down.
At the conclusion of the two-hour trial, Fennerty asked for a directed verdict, indicating that the prosecution had not proved its case.
Ogarek responded by stating she would review her notes and the video before handing down a verdict.
Fennerty maintained that the surveillance recordings did not back up what the witnesses said, that the people arrested had been warned that they would be arrested if they did not leave the building.
He pointed out that it did show that only four of the people arrested were in the main meeting room, while Karver was behind a half-door in the foyer.
Neither security guard was able to identify exactly who they escorted out from the video. Esposito said it was a chaotic scene and the video only showed people from the back.
Brannigan, a former Republican candidate for the 3rd District congressional seat, has questioned the immigration status of students from Middle Eastern countries coming to local schools, and said “nothing is being done” about it in the 3rd District. In another, she seemed to criticize women from Middle Eastern countries for wearing head coverings.
She has issued apologies twice at township meetings for the offending posts. When questioned by Fennerty at the trial, she mentioned that they were posted on her personal Facebook page. However, he pointed out that she identifies herself as a Palos Township trustee on the same page.
Brannigan was first elected as a Palos Township trustee in 2013.