EAST CHICAGO — A former East Chicago city councilman is crying foul after his attempted comeback from a decade-old sidewalks scandal was recently cut short by his firing.
Randall Artis said last week the loss of his City Hall job earlier this month as a Clerk I, a full-time position with an annual salary of $10,840, "was totally a political vendetta ... not supporting the people he wants," referring to newly elected City Clerk Adrian Santos.
Santos said last week, "Randall Artis was terminated because he cannot be trusted to handle the public's money. It's just that simple."
Artis said his real sin was refusing to show deference to Robert Cantrell, a convicted felon and political activist with long ties to the city's old Democratic machine, and those Cantrell favors in upcoming elections.
"Me and Bobby Cantrell don't see eye to eye. I think Bobby kind of persuaded Adrian to fire me," Artis said in noting that Santos now employs John Cantrell, Robert's son, as attorney for the clerk's office.
Robert Cantrell recently finished a 78-month federal sentence for his 2008 conviction of illegally taking secret cash kickbacks from a contract between the North Township trustee's office, where Cantrell was an employee, and a counseling service and hiding the profits from the IRS.
Santos denied he takes orders from Robert Cantrell. "His son is representing the city clerk's office as an attorney and an attorney only," Santos said. "(Artis) was fired because he was a felon. If Randy hadn't been a felon, he would be working here. Anything other than that, Randall Artis is a liar."
John Cantrell said of Artis' complaint, "That's stupid."
Artis pleaded guilty in 2005 to a theft count and was sentenced the following year to prison.
The East Chicago city employee handbook states, "When an employee commits a deliberate action that is deemed inexcusable, that employee will be subject to immediate dismissal. Such actions include ... conviction of a felony."
However, hiring practices are at the discretion of elected officials. No state law prohibits employing convicted felons, Thomas Dabertin, a human resources specialist for several local government agencies, said.
Artis was caught up, like a number of city officials and vendors, in a corruption probe directed by the U.S. attorney's office into the misappropriation of more than $24 million to pave new sidewalks, curbs, private driveways and parking lots and, in at least one case, an entire backyard, as well as tree-trimming in return for residents' votes in 1999.
He said he was released from prison and supervised release and has remained law-abiding since then, and has worked part-time jobs for the county surveyor and the county Sheriff's Department without incident.
Artis said, "I'm human. I made a mistake. I served my time. My model was to make a comeback greater than my setback. I felt my big break in life came in August 2015 when the former City Clerk Mary Morris Leonard believed in me enough to offer me employment in the city clerk's office."
Leonard, who left office Dec. 31, couldn't be reached Tuesday for comment. Artis said the city did a background check last year.
"My felony came up, but there was no problem," he said.
Artis said he and Santos served a couple of years together on the City Council before Artis left for prison. He said he renewed acquaintances when Santos was running for clerk last year. "Adrian said he needed help in the black community. He knew the people in (East Chicago's) Calumet still respected me," Artis said.
Artis said once Santos took office last month they quarreled over who to support in this year's elections. He said he didn't expect to get fired until he was called into Santos' office Feb. 1 when he was confronted by Santos and John Cantrell, who announced Artis was the only office employee in violation of the no-felony rule Santos was enforcing.
Artis said he told Santos, "I said I had enough integrity to take you door to door in the community, but now I'm not good enough to work for you?"
Santos countered that Artis never was part of his campaign. "We were in Calumet with a group; all were walking the same beat. I was walking for my election, and he was walking for Robert Coop Battle's election."
Battle, the current 3rd District city councilman, won re-election last year, but has since been in federal detention on federal drug and homicide charges that Battle denies.
Artis also questioned why Santos waited a month to fire him, unless it was about their political disagreement. Santos said he was awaiting Cantrell's research on Artis' conviction before acting. He said Artis asked for more time to get his conviction expunged. Santos said there would be no exceptions to the rule.