HAMPTON — The former tourism director for Lake County is starting a fight against his former employers for sacking him as well as a political rival who accused him of wasting public funds. This Monday, Speros Batistatos’ legal team filed a complaint in U.S. District Court to have him appointed director of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority once again. In addition, he asks the court to award him certain monetary damages from the Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and a number of other people who he believes were involved in his dismissal last year.
It was impossible to reach the tourism organization’s and Batistatos’ attorneys on Tuesday for comment. Despite The Region’s reputation as an all-work, no-play region of the state where amusements were difficult to discover among its grimy smokestacks, Batistatos long pushed Lake County as a tourist hotspot. The convention and visitors authority was established by the Indiana General Assembly in 1983, with money provided by state hotel fees. Six years later, the authority appointed Batistatos as its executive director.
Over the years, visitors to air shows, conventions, and festivals began to flock to Lake County. According to the agency’s website, Lake County’s accommodation, entertainment, recreation, retail, and food and beverage industries generate close to $1 billion in revenue each year. Batistatos was made president and CEO by the SSCVA in 1993, and in 2005, after he had left the region to pursue other career objectives, the organization encouraged him to come back.
However, several people were offended by Batistatos’ abrasive demeanor, especially McDermott. The 38-page lawsuit’s court complaint details the assault McDermott launched on the tourism industry pioneer because of McDermott’s “Left of Center” podcasts. According to the lawsuit, McDermott disparages Batistatos by portraying him as an unelected official who utilized taxpayer funds from the tourism board’s multimillion-dollar budget to reward supportive communities and punish those who dared to confront him, like Hammond.
In addition, McDermott questioned Batistatos’ extravagant spending on personal amusement and six-figure income ($244,000 last year, according to a state government payroll database). Last autumn, McDermott said he played no part in Batistatos’ demise and that his critiques were protected speech under the First Amendment. According to Batistatos, the board terminated his employment on July 15, 2021, though he had intended to stay with the tourism organization for a further four and a half years.
Last year, Batistatos started arguing with the chairman of the controlling board of the tourism organization, Andrew E. Qunell. Along with Qunell personally, McDermott, and five other people are being sued by Batistatos. Board members and Batistatos clashed about how to use the $388,500 in federal pandemic relief funds that the board had received. Some wanted to give $25,000 scholarships to 15 localities with no conditions attached.
Batistatos opposed this idea on the grounds that it was illegal and charged the board with breaking the state’s Open Door Law by keeping its grant-related choices a secret. In his lawsuit, Batistatos claims that the board fired him in reprisal for his efforts to expose fraud around the funds. Batistatos, who is 59, also asserts that his dismissal constituted age discrimination because David Uran, the former mayor of Crown Point, is 10 years younger than him. Batistatos also claims that the conditions of his employment agreement with the tourism board were broken by his dismissal.
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