Any controversies aside, however, city hall insiders say they believe that Cherryhomes's main motivation was spite. Simply put, they say she was so upset by her defeat, and holds so much acrimony toward Johnson Lee, that she simply wanted to make council life extraordinarily difficult for her.
"It seems to be a calculated effort to set up her successor to fail," suggests current council vice president Robert Lilligren, newly elected to fill Herron's old seat on the Eighth Ward. "You would hope that an elected official wouldn't be that petty and would have a greater concern for constituents." Lilligren is one of several people who say they saw Cherryhomes and her aides "tossing boxes after boxes into two big dumpsters."
Neither Cherryhomes nor either of her former aides would return calls from City Pages seeking comment for this story. But last week the erstwhile council member told a local television station that she didn't keep many files in her office because she has a photographic memory. Further confusing things, both Johnson Lee and Lilligren charge that one of Cherryhomes's former staffers appeared at a public hearing two weeks ago with stacks of documents pertaining to past Fifth Ward business.
In any case, all that's left in the office now, Johnson Lee and Lilligren maintain, is one box that's about a third full of useless papers pertaining to small matters. They say Cherryhomes kept track of constituent and business contacts via computer; Johnson Lee insists that the entire database for the Fifth Ward is missing. (Late last week, city clerk Keefe says, searches on keywords such as Hollman and Cherryhomes produced nothing originating from the former council president's office, but by Friday some 600 files that were automatically backed up by the city's system had been found. They will be reviewed and turned over to Johnson Lee in the coming weeks.)
Under guidelines maintained by the city clerk, ward offices are responsible for maintaining calendars, complaints, telephone logs, and e-mail records. Further, ward offices are supposed to maintain general correspondence for two years, at which point it is to be turned over to the city's archives, where it is held for six years after the council member leaves office. State law is even broader: It requires "every legal custodian of government records [to] deliver to a successor in office all government records in custody." City archivists have received nothing from Cherryhomes since 1997, according to Keefe.
Laura Sether, press secretary for R.T. Rybak's office, says that the mayor is aware that Cherryhomes took the files. She says the matter has Rybak concerned not only about the files, but how to prevent such actions in the future. "The mayor is taking this seriously because this information belongs to the public," Sether says, noting that some council members feel their office files are personal. "We are not sure what action will be taken, but there are ethics questions and recommendations the mayor wants to make to prevent this from happening again."
The flap over the missing files last week sparked complaints throughout city hall that the city's independent investigation into the Herron scandal was too narrowly focused; the probe focused almost solely on licensing and inspection issues in the Eighth Ward. Newcomer Lilligren is one of those who thinks the city's and the FBI's probes should have been broader. "Why were both investigations so focused?" he asks. "They were supposed to be citywide."
Johnson Lee offers a final irony: She says that Cherryhomes's predecessor, the equally controversial Van White, did the same thing on his way out of office in 1990. This means, Johnson Lee says, that it's quite possible that 20 years of files regarding the Fifth Ward are gone. At the very least, she is quick to add, the city should take measures to ensure that this sort of thing never happens again.
"I'm not sure what would motivate someone to destroy a whole office of files," Johnson Lee concludes. "It's like in the Enron case: Destruction of files, or the appearance of missing files, gives the strong suspicion of impropriety. It don't smell too good."