Noelle Brennan is no stranger to cabinets full of documents and long witness lists.
The newly appointed monitor who will be a watchdog over city hiring has investigated giant organizations before. And in one case, her work led to the largest sexual harassment settlement ever reached by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America, which paid $34 million in 1998 to settle sex harassment claims at its plant in Normal, Ill. Brennan was the lead government investigator in the case.
A triathlete and attorney known to work late into the night, Brennan, 39, is a bulldog fighter for civil rights and fairness in the workplace, friends and associates said Tuesday.
The daughter of a Chicago public school teacher and a pediatric nurse, Brennan is a native of the south suburbs. She moved to Southern California with her divorced mother and spent much of her youth in racially mixed schools and neighborhoods where she witnessed discrimination and developed a keen sense of justice.
And--most importantly to the judge who appointed her--she has avoided the many tentacles of Chicago politics.
"She comes to this with no bias," said U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen, who said he passed over several retired judges for the monitor's post because of their clear political affiliations. "I just don't have a shadow of a doubt about her trustworthiness."
Brennan briefly interned for Andersen in 1994, conducting research and drafting some opinions while attending DePaul University Law School. She graduated in 1995 and soon after, Andersen recommended her for a rare opening for trial attorneys at the EEOC.
"We have upwards of 100 applicants for every position," said John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC. "The judge recommended her. I interviewed her and she blew my socks off. She was so committed to the kind of work we do."
After joining the EEOC as a trial attorney, Brennan played a pivotal role in some of the biggest cases the agency has brought in Chicago. In addition to the Mitsubishi case, Brennan was lead attorney in a 2003 settlement against Dial Corp. for widespread sex harassment at a plant near Aurora. In another case, she fought on behalf of female sales reps at a suburban trucking company who were expected to entertain clients at a strip club.
Brennan left the EEOC in early 2004 to form her own practice. From a Chicago office decorated with Ansel Adams prints and colorful photos of Ireland and Lake Michigan, she drinks Diet Coke and has continued to wage fair-employment battles, including an ongoing case in which former employees of the Niketown store on the Magnificent Mile allege discrimination against African-American employees.
In her new role in the center of Chicago's political scandal, "I would not assume that she will take anything at face value," said Jeanne Szromba, who worked with Brennan at the EEOC for several years. "But she will be fair," Szromba said. "No one's going to get away with anything. I really believe that."
Brennan declined to be interviewed.
"I think it would impede the case," she said.
Her job is to immediately delve into the arcane machinations of City Hall employment and recommend, by next month, ways to best watch over and clean up the scandal-plagued process. After that, it's unclear how long the monitor role would continue.
For her work, Brennan and two assistants will be compensated by the city in the range of $250 per hour, with final fees to be approved by Judge Andersen.
Brennan has worked with such court-appointed monitors before, in both the Mitsubishi and Dial cases.
"This is going to be a very difficult job for anyone to do," said George Galland, a monitor in the Mitsubishi case. "She'll need a lot of time. She'll need a lot of energy."
Energy won't be a problem, if Brennan's track record is any indicator.
She competes in several triathlons each year and has been active in two book clubs, said Brennan's husband, Craig Varga, another Chicago attorney. The couple live in Lincoln Park.
Campaign records show Varga has donated $600 to his local alderman, Vi Daley (43rd), in the last three years, but the records show no contributions from Brennan to any candidates at any level. Her last known political involvement came in the early 1990s, when, after graduating with a degree in psychology from UCLA, she was a staff assistant to U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, a liberal California Democrat.
When she isn't working, or reading, or running, Brennan often can be found attending concerts and movies in Grant Park, Varga said.
"She really loves this city," he said.
TRIBUNE PROFILE: NOELLE BRENNAN
CITY HALL HIRING PROBE
The newly appointed watchdog over city hiring is a former attorney with the federal EEOC who has built a reputation as a tough lawyer who is able to separate fact from fiction
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