HAMMOND — The former head of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority appears to be preparing to sue the city of Hammond and numerous additional individuals in connection with his removal as Lake County's tourism chief.
On Thursday, Speros Batistatos filed a tort claim notice with Hammond city attorney Kevin Smith and the Hammond Common Council alleging certain actions by Smith and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., among others, caused Batistatos to incur more than $2.5 million in damages, including lost salary and benefits over a five-year period.
Under Indiana law, the city now has 90 days to evaluate Batistatos' claim and decide whether to approve or deny it.
If the claim is denied, as expected, only then can Batistatos file a lawsuit and pursue his allegations in court.
According to the notice, Batistatos contends McDermott, Smith and five members of the tourism board conspired to publish numerous defamatory statements, and terminate and/or interfere with Batistatos' continued employment at the tourism authority.
Batistatos specifically cites McDermott "tirades" against Batistatos on the "Left of Center" podcast McDermott hosts with Smith as examples of unlawful interference with Batistatos' business and contractual relationships, as well as constituting two types of defamation.
He also attributes his losses to the alleged actions of all directors and members of the Lake County tourism board, in particular Chairman Andy Qunell, Vice Chairman Brent Brashier, Treasurer Matthew Maloney, Hammond representative Tom Dabertin and Griffith representative Matt Schuffert.
"The tort and other actions against Mr. Batistatos are continuing and ongoing," says the notice filed by Indianapolis attorney Sandra Blevins. "Mr. Batistatos' losses are in excess of $2.5 million."
McDermott and Smith unofficially responded to Batistatos' tort claim notice on Friday's edition of their Left of Center podcast, in part by McDermott affirming his past characterizations of Batistatos as "a pompous ass" and "a jackass who doesn't know the law."
"I didn't interfere with his employment contract. I criticized the way he did his job as a public figure spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money," McDermott said. "Guess what, I'm entitled to do that, it's called the First Amendment."
McDermott also suggested if the dispute ends up in court he might file a counterclaim against Batistatos for attempting to intimidate McDermott and keep him from expressing his opinion on the actions of a public official.
"I have the right to speak and talk about how Speros spent $50 million under his tenure — and I will," McDermott said.
Records show the tourism board voted 12-2 on July 15 to remove Batistatos from his role in day-to-day operations after some 30 years with the agency that's funded largely by taxes paid by Lake County hotel guests.
The decision followed a weeks-long conflict between Batistatos and tourism board members over Batistatos' compensation that exceeded $330,000 between salary and benefits, including use of a company car, vacation day buyouts, vacation bonuses, stipends, and retirement plan contributions.
Board members also had expressed concerns about Batistatos' job performance, attitude and argumentativeness with the board on some issues.
Ultimately, the board decided not to renew Batistados' contract. It expires Dec. 31.