City Hall claim: Former parks official helped lover win Millennium Park restaurant deal
By TIM NOVAK Staff Reporter October 21, 2013 12:09AM
The Park Grill restaurant in Millennium Park. | Sun-Times file photo
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Updated: November 22, 2013 6:08AM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration says a former Chicago Park District official improperly helped her lover win a 30-year deal to operate a restaurant in Millennium Park bankrolled by friends and supporters of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.
In its lawsuit to break the deal with Park Grill, City Hall says Laura Foxgrover “unduly and unfairly influenced” the selection process by helping her child’s father Matthew O’Malley and his partners land the deal 10 years ago.
Foxgrover says in a deposition in the case that she recused herself from negotiations between the park district and O’Malley’s group — but she didn’t tell park district officials she was lovers with O’Malley and became pregnant while the negotiations were under way.
City officials say she took part in the selection process even after writing her recusal letter, and they have testimony and copies of emails to back that up. She disputes that.
“I was a conduit for information,” Foxgrover said in the daylong deposition she gave on July 24, saying she conveyed information between parks Supt. David Doig and the district’s negotiators with O’Malley’s group.
Foxgrover is the daughter of a former Cook County judge and, like O’Malley, grew up in Beverly. She was married to someone else and working at the Chicago Firehouse, a steakhouse O’Malley opened in a building he acquired from the city, when they began having an affair, according to her deposition. She left for a job with the park district in 2001 while O’Malley was preparing to bid for the Millennium Park restaurant.
Ed Uhlir, who oversaw development of the park, was on a selection committee that evaluated the restaurant proposal and says Foxgrover “was essentially staff” for the committee. In a deposition last spring, Uhlir said he didn’t know about her relationship with O’Malley and that, if he had, “I would have asked that Laura Foxgrover be eliminated from ever having any dealings with the committee at all.”
He said “the Park Grill seemed to have insider information going — looking back on how they presented themselves, what they presented, it was all perfect.”
He said someone tampered with his evaluation form, raising the marks he gave Park Grill’s bid. He also said someone scratched out ratings on all the evaluators’ forms regarding the amount of money the park district would get from each proposal.
The bid that would have given the park district the biggest payout came from the owners of North Pond Cafe, who proposed to partner with venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, an Emanuel friend now running for governor.
O’Malley and his partner James Horan got a 20-year deal for the restaurant, with two five-year renewal options, and free water, natural gas and garbage collection. And they didn’t have to pay their annual base rent of $275,000 until the restaurant recovered its construction costs. Those were selling points they used to attract investors, who were told they could expect a 20 percent return over 10 years, according to Horan’s deposition, taken July 15.
Investors included Daley cousin Theresa Mintle, a CTA official who went on to become Mayor Emanuel’s first chief of staff, and her husband Michael Toolis, an architect who is on the restaurant’s five-member board of directors with O’Malley and Horan.
Months after the O’Malley and Horan group landed the Millennium Park restaurant deal in 2003, city officials say they realized the agreement included some land owned by the city and not just park district-owned property, though the City Council never approved that. That’s one of the points the city now cites in trying to scrap the deal.
That issue resurfaced in February 2005, when O’Malley and Horan were summoned to a meeting with Daley’s top City Hall lawyer, Mara Georges, two days before a Chicago Sun-Times report revealed O’Malley’s relationship with Foxgrover.
“All of a sudden, we’re getting called over . . . and told that we aren’t supposed to be here,” Horan said in his deposition. “How could you possibly say that? You guys have been in constant communication and negotiation. This has been approved at every level of the city, and now you’re throwing this letter we’re not supposed to be here? I mean, please.”
City Hall tried to redo the Park Grill deal, which so far has paid the park district nearly $2.6 million — 2.7 percent of the restaurant’s total revenue of nearly $96 million since January 2004.
And the Cook County assessor’s office tried to make the restaurant pay property taxes but lost that fight before the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled three years ago that the restaurant didn’t have to pay taxes because it had a concession deal, not a lease.
City Hall tried to reopen talks with Park Grill two years ago, when the Emanuel administration learned O’Malley and Horan planned to sell the restaurant to the Levy Organization for $8 million, a deal the park district refused to approve. The city then sued.
O’Malley said he turned to Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) for help.
“It was about asking for guidance,” O’Malley said in a July 25 deposition. “Guidance in trying to understand . . . why the park distirct . . . is not approving a change of manager” to the Levy organization.
Foxgrover left the park district about six years ago and went back to work for O’Malley. O’Malley and Foxgover, both 45, got married in June, with Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, the alderman’s wife, officiating.