THE WATCHDOGS: Sewage official with ties to Ald. Mell flush with deals
THIS WEEK BY TIM NOVAK AND CHRIS FUSCO January 30, 2012 12:48AM
Commissioner Michael A. Alvarez of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago attends a Jan. 19 board meeting. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: March 1, 2012 8:08AM
By his 28th birthday, Michael A. Alvarez — whose family is close to influential Chicago Ald. Richard Mell — already had worked for three powerful politicians: Richard M. Daley, Rod R. Blagojevich and Barack Obama.
Now, at 31, Alvarez’s political connections are helping provide him with an annual income topping $200,000 from three separate jobs in or involving government:
† He makes $70,000 a year as one of nine elected commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the billion-dollar, government sewage-treatment agency that he hopes to lead after its longtime president, Terry O’Brien, retires in December.
† He has a $60,000-a-year public relations contract with the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the state agency that owns U.S. Cellular Field.
† And now he has a lucrative, fast-growing lobbying practice at City Hall — having first registered as a city lobbyist in July, six weeks after Rahm Emanuel was sworn in as mayor.
Two of Alvarez’s clients — Globetrotters Engineering Corp. and St. Anthony Hospital — have agreed to pay him a combined $120,000 a year, according to documents Alvarez has filed with the city. Fourteen other clients — including operators of the city’s parking meters and red-light cameras — have paid him a total of $39,000.
Alvarez sometimes chats with the mayor during early morning workouts at the East Bank Club and is friendly with Emanuel’s political advisers. But Alvarez says his booming City Hall lobbying business has nothing to do with his ties to the mayor.
“I don’t think I have a better relationship with him than anybody else in the city of Chicago,” Alvarez says. “People come to you and ask you if you can be helpful. I’ve developed a reputation as someone who’s honest and aboveboard and can provide strategic counsel.”
Emanuel’s press secretary, Sarah Hamilton, describes Alvarez as an Emanuel political supporter who “shares the mayor’s vision of turning our rivers into recreational frontiers.”
Alvarez isn’t the only elected official who also works as a lobbyist — others include Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) and Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston).
But Alvarez’s lobbying work posed a potential conflict-of-interest problem for him earlier this month. One of his clients, Avaya communications, wanted the Water Reclamation District board to increase its contract by $242,000. Alvarez says he was prepared to abstain from voting, but the matter was removed from the board’s agenda.
“I don’t think I have any more of a conflict than any other elected official,” Alvarez says, adding that he won’t vote on any issue involving a client and would never help his clients get business from the Water Reclamation District.
Alvarez is the son of Patricia McEvilly-Alvarez and Jesus “Al” Alvarez, a Cuban immigrant who worked in the Cook County Circuit Court clerk’s office before retiring as a top supervisor in 2008. He grew up on the North Side, but his family later moved to Skokie so he could attend Niles North High School.
As a boy, Alvarez romped around Ald. Mell’s ward office as his father did volunteer work for Mell’s 33rd Ward Regular Democratic Organization.
“I’ve known him since he was knee high to a duck,” Mell says of Michael Alvarez. “He’s a bright young guy. I think he works hard.”
In the late 1990s, Alvarez worked two summers at the Water Reclamation District and began attending Northwestern University. In 2000, he landed an unpaid internship in the Washington congressional office of then-U.S. Rep. Blagojevich, Mell’s son-in-law.
Alvarez got a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern in 2002. In early 2003, Mayor Daley’s campaign paid him $2,930 to run Daley’s Northwest Side field office, a campaign that ended with a landslide Daley victory over the Rev. Paul Jakes.
By that time, Blagojevich had been elected governor, and Alvarez went to work for the state as a deputy director of the Illinois Department of Employment Security — a job that Mell helped him get, according to a database that Blagojevich’s office kept.
Alvarez, who was 22 at the time, made $4,130 a month when he started with the state in May 2003. He got a 5 percent raise two months later, bringing his salary to $52,044 a year.
He left the state payroll in November 2005 to become outreach director for then-Sen. Obama, a job that paid him $60,472 annually, according to Legistorm, a website that tracks congressional spending. He left Obama’s staff in the fall of 2007 and started his lobbying and consulting business, which runs out of the Sauganash home where he lives with his wife and two kids.
Alvarez was lobbying state and federal government officials and also doing public relations consulting for the Sports Facilities Authority when he was elected to his six-year term on the Water Reclamation District board in November 2010.
As a commissioner, Alvarez has two assistants. One of them, Nancy Cullerton, is the wife of Chicago Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th). She previously worked for Alvarez’s predecessor, Gloria Majewski, and is paid $87,794 annually.
Alvarez filled the other job by hiring Yomaira Herrera, who makes $83,872. Alvarez says Herrera is a family friend with a background in human resources. She’s also Mell’s girlfriend.
Alvarez, who has a $170,736 balance in his political campaign fund, says he intends to serve his full six-year term with the Water Reclamation District, a $1-billion-a-year government agency that treats most of the sewage in Cook County.
He’s hoping to replace the retiring O’Brien as board president. He needs votes from half of the other eight commissioners to do that. Mell has asked some of those commissioners to support Alvarez.
Still, Alvarez says, “If you talk about a ‘Dick Mell guy,’ I don’t know what that means. I’m as much a Mell guy as I am an Obama guy.”