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Former Ald. Richard Mell’s next gig: lobbying

The IRS raided headquarters Acme Refining 3357 S. Justine St. Bridgeport recently . | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

The IRS raided the headquarters of Acme Refining at 3357 S. Justine St. in Bridgeport recently . | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

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Updated: September 26, 2013 6:27AM

It didn’t take long after his retirement last month for former 33rd Ward Ald. Richard Mell to once again inject himself into city business.

Now deprived of the desk he famously stood on during one long-ago City Council debate, Mell recently tried to use what clout he still has to get a former colleague to help a big campaign contributor.

Ald. Danny Solis (25th) says Mell contacted him after his last Council meeting and urged him to hold off on approving plans for a new scrap-metal shredder that’s being pitched as the source of 100 new jobs for Pilsen.

“Mell approached me,” Solis says. “He said, ‘Why don’t you give it more time? Has this been fully vetted with you?’ ”

Mell was speaking on behalf of Howard Labkon and his family’s General Iron Industries, which operates a scrap-metal recycling facility on the Near North Side.

“I guess General Iron doesn’t want them because they would be competition,” Solis says of the investors who want to build a new metal shredder in his ward, on 14.8 acres at the southeast corner of Cermak Road and Loomis Street.

Mell confirms he contacted Solis in the interests of Labkon and General Iron. He has not registered as a City Hall lobbyist for the company and says he’s not acting in an official capacity for Labkon, though.

“I may be working with him — I’m not yet,” Mell says. “All I know is they wanted to sit down with Danny and talk.”

Mell says General Iron could become one of his first clients in his new career.

“I’m going to be setting up a company to do public relations, helping with campaigns and possibly lobbying,” says Mell, 75, who ended a 38-year run as alderman on July 24, after his daughter Deborah Mell was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to succeed him.

By quitting when he did, Mell avoided having to comply with a new ethics rule that will bar aldermen from lobbying at City Hall for a year after leaving office. The measure goes into effect Jan. 1.

In a statement, Labkon described Mell as “a longtime friend and adviser.”

“I recently expressed to him my frustration over the Pilsen scrap-metal project’s fast-track treatment, which has seemingly circumvented the rigorous environmental and regulatory scrutiny that companies in our industry must, for good reason, typically face,” Labkon says. “While we have not hired Dick Mell to lobby for General Iron, I appreciate his questioning of Ald. Solis concerning the rush to approve this project.”

The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals was scheduled to vote on the Pilsen proposal on Aug. 16, but Solis delayed a decision, to seek community feedback.

Labkon has been a major contributor to the campaign funds of Mell as well as Solis. He has given $31,000 to Mell, while Labkon and other General Iron executives have contributed a total of $36,000 to the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, led by Solis.

The metal-shredder proposal could have to overcome a more formidable obstacle than Mell. The Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division raided the family business of an investor in the Pilsen plan last week.

City records show that the proposal was submitted by a new company named Pure Metal Recycling. It’s a joint venture of Scrap Metal Services and Brett Baron, whose family owns Acme Refining. Authorities said the IRS Criminal Investigation Division executed a search warrant at Acme Refining’s headquarters on the South Side on Wednesday, though no arrests were made.

Before the raid, Solis had said he favored the plan from Pure Metal Recycling, which also has close ties to the alderman.

The City Hall lobbyists for Pure Metal Recycling include Brian Hynes, a former aide to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). Hynes is a business partner of Patti Doyle Solis, one of the alderman’s sisters and a former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton.

Hynes and Patti Doyle Solis have a Chicago company called Vendor Assistance Program. It was the first company allowed to profit from a state program that advances money to state vendors who are owed for their services.

Acme Refining has given a total of $32,500 to Solis’ ward organization, and Scrap Metal Services and its executives have pitched in $20,500 to the 25th Ward Democrats since 2011, according to state records.

Those contributions include $5,000 checks from each of the two companies on Jan. 30, three weeks before Pure Metal Recycling was incorporated. On the same day, the law firm where Hynes works gave $1,000 to the 25th Ward Democrats.

Danny Solis says Hynes has not lobbied him for the metal-shredder plan.

“Brian is more of a friend,” the alderman says.

Mark Swedlow, president of Pure Metal Recycling, says the company plans an initial investment of as much as $40 million to create a recycling facility he says would have no negative impact on the environment. Swedlow says the necessary machinery would be housed in a building that would suppress dust and noise.

After winning a long-running battle to close a coal-fired power plant, some in Pilsen are wary of Pure Metal Recycling’s plan. Rosalie Mancera, an activist with the Pilsen Alliance, says the company should put its promises in writing.


Twitter: @dmihalopoulos

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