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THE WATCHDOGS: City’s Park Grill lawsuit could hurt top Emanuel aide financially

TheresMintle -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel's chief staff -- with her husbMichael Toolis.  Phoby Steve Becker

Theresa Mintle -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel's chief of staff -- with her husband, Michael Toolis. Photo by Steve Becker

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Updated: February 10, 2012 8:25AM

Theresa E. Mintle, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s chief of staff, finds herself in an unusual position these days.

Last month, her boss filed a lawsuit to break the Chicago Park District’s concession deal with the clout-heavy operators of Millennium Park’s Park Grill restaurant, who city officials say are costing taxpayers money by paying sub-market-rate rent and not getting billed for water, gas and garbage pickups.

If the lawsuit is successful, it could cost Mintle and her husband, architect Michael Toolis.

Mintle — who’s a cousin of former Mayor Richard M. Daley — and her husband were investors in Park Grill when it opened in November 2003 and quickly became a popular destination in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Daley’s pet project.

Last May 19, three days after Emanuel took office and Mintle started work as his top aide, Mintle transferred her financial stake in the restaurant to her husband, according to City Hall.

The city filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court on Dec. 1 in an effort to block the Park Grill’s managing partners — Matthew O’Malley and James Horan — from selling the restaurant’s long-term concession deal to Levy Premium Foodservice L.P. Under the now-blocked deal, the managing partners’ company would get $8.8 million, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.

And, if Levy was able to take over the concession, Levy would then offer to pay “an amount that could total approximately $4.9 million” to buy out the restaurant’s investors, according to court documents filed by Park Grill.

In all, more than 100 investors put up a total of $7 million to open the restaurant.

Mintle and her husband’s ownership stake was 1.68 percent, according to documents the restaurant filed with City Hall in 2005 to obtain a liquor license from the Daley administration. Now, her husband holds that stake entirely in his name.

“Theresa Mintle has no financial interest in the Park Grill,” says Sarah Hamilton, Emanuel’s press secretary.

When Mintle and her husband invested in the restaurant, she was the Chicago Transit Authority’s director of governmental affairs, lobbying other government agencies for transit money.

She was the CTA’s chief of staff when Emanuel appointed her his $174,996-a-year chief of staff last May, a few days before he succeeded Daley as mayor.

Emanuel was aware that Mintle and Toolis were investors in the restaurant before he hired her, according to mayoral aides, who also say she has had no involvement in the city’s efforts to break the deal with the Park Grill.

Mintle, 47, who lives in the city’s Gold Coast neighborhood, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

She’s one of several prominent people who invested in Park Grill with close ties to Daley. The others include trucking magnate Fred Barbara; Pat Degnan, the brother of longtime Daley political adviser Tim Degnan; and janitorial business kingpin Richard Simon, who lived next door to Daley.

The Park Grill deal to operate in Millennium Park has been a subject of controversy since February 2005, when the Sun-Times revealed that a Chicago Park District official became pregnant with O’Malley’s child during the time the 20-year concession agreement was being negotiated — a point that’s raised in the Emanuel administration’s lawsuit.

Under its park district deal, the restaurant pays no property taxes, isn’t billed for most utilities and has seen its base yearly rent of $275,000 waived every year to help Park Grill’s owners recover their construction costs.

The park district is paid 5 percent of Park Grill’s revenues, having gotten a total of $2.2 million since the restaurant opened.

Revenues were down nearly 18 percent at Park Grill last year, according to a report the restaurant’s operators gave investors in November. They blamed that decline on lousy weather and City Hall’s decision to move the city’s Country Music Festival to Grant Park.

In the wake of Sun-Times reports on the restaurant’s deal with the park district, the Daley administration sought to renegotiate, arguing that the park district had no authority to sign the deal with O’Malley’s group because the restaurant sits on an easement controlled by the city — not the park district.

Those negotiations went nowhere, even as then-Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan unsuccessfully sued to force the restaurant to pay property taxes.

O’Malley’s management group then struck the deal to sell its concession agreement to Levy, and the restaurant’s investors urged the park district to OK the deal, court records show.

But the Emanuel administration stepped in, first in an effort to make the restaurant pay more money to the city, and then, when that effort broke down, filing suit to end the deal.

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