Updated: November 23, 2013 6:17AM
Rich Daley, the former mayor, doesn’t know what he knew and we don’t either.
Chances are, we never will.
The entire shadowy story of how a small group of Daley friends and relatives landed a lucrative deal to run the Park Grill in Millennium Park may never see sunlight. Daley himself didn’t shed much light on the matter in an Aug. 29 deposition — the details of which were revealed in Sunday’s Sun-Times — when he stuck to variations on a theme: “I don’t recall.”
But thanks to lawsuits and Sun-Times reporting, we do know this: The Park Grill deal is a classic case of how money and clout grab the inside track in Chicago, seemingly for the benefit of a small group of people who all know each other, doing the rest of us no favors.
Consider, to begin with, the original clout-heavy investors in the Park Grill: Bridgeport trucker and Daley family pal Fred Barbara, relatives of longtime Daley adviser Tim Degnan, retired congressman Morgan Murphy, and Daley cousin Theresa Mintle.
Mintle, we should add — because this is how tightly wound connections and clout in Chicago get — went on to become Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first chief of staff. And just to marvel at the clubbiness of it all, we should also note that the investor group that did not land the Park Grill deal had planned to partner with venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, Emanuel’s great friend and financial backer who now is running for governor.
Forgive us our suspicions, but wasn’t there a top-notch restaurant group somewhere — people who actually know the business — interested in running a surefire moneymaker in a wildly popular lakefront park in the third largest city in the nation?
Or were Daley’s pals and relatives the best this begging town could do?
Consider next how the wheels may have been greased to make sure the Daley crowd won the contract. Laura Foxgrover, a Chicago Park District official, was having an affair with Matthew O’Malley, a member of the restaurant investment group when it sought to be selected by the Park District to run the Park Grill. Foxgrover was pregnant with O’Malley’s child. In a recent deposition, a member of the selection committee said it always seemed to him that “the Park Grill seemed to have insider information going — looking back on how they presented themselves, what they presented, it was all perfect.”
And then, of course, consider how the Park Grill scored a big victory three years ago when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the restaurant did not have to pay millions of dollars in property taxes because it had a concession deal with the park district, not a lease.
Was that a sound ruling?
Maybe. Probably. Sure. Whatever.
But again, we can’t help but marvel at how all these people seem to know each other. We figure two degrees of separation at most. State Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, who actually did not vote in the restaurant’s favor, is the wife of Ald. Ed Burke, whom O’Malley turned to shortly afterward — as a friend — for guidance on a business matter related to the restaurant.
And who officiated at O’Malley and Foxgrover’s wedding last June?
Talk about your sweetheart deals. The Park Grill not only pays no property taxes, it enjoys a 20-year contract, with two five-year renewal options, and gets free water, natural gas and garbage collection. The restaurant did not have to pay its annual base rent of $275,000 until it recovered its construction costs. And the city spent $390,000 to install a pipe to provide the gas.
It’s no surprise, then, that O’Malley assured the Park Grill’s investors — all those Daley friends, associates and relatives — that they could count on a 20 percent return over 10 years.
City Hall is suing the Park Grill to undo the deal. Mayor Emanuel on Monday said the city was “taken advantage of” and he’s determined to make the restaurant pay “full freight.”
We can only hope.
Clout and money wind together easily in Chicago. Unwinding is an unnatural act.