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Mihalopoulos: After Midway deal, restaurateurs gave big to Rahm
Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces new concessions, more security entrances and parking spaces at Midway Airport. Thursday, August 6, 2015. File Photo. (Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times)
After getting clearance for takeoff from City Hall a month ago, a clout-heavy group of business interests stands to profit richly from providing expanded restaurants and stores at Chicago’s No. 2 airport.
Not long after the Midway Airport deal was finally approved, restaurateurs with a stake in the winning proposal showed their love for Mayor Rahm Emanuel — in the form of big contributions to the mayor’s campaign fund.
City records show three brands from Richard Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. — Big Bowl, M Burger and R.J. Grunts — will be among the restaurants doing business at Midway under the new deal between the city and concessionaire Midway Partnership LLC.
As part of the team the Emanuel administration chose over other bidders, the three restaurants will offer their menus to the captive audience of travelers beyond the airport’s security checkpoints.
Since the City Council vote to ratify the mayor’s preferred concessions plan, the Chicago for Rahm Emanuel campaign committee has reported getting contributions worth $86,200 from Melman family
members, Lettuce Entertain You employees and many of its restaurants.
On Feb. 28 — six days after the Midway bid won final approval — people and restaurants associated with Lettuce Entertain You gave 20 separate contributions for a total of $48,800 to the mayor’s political fund.
According to campaign-finance disclosure reports, those contributions included support from:
Two Melman family members.
Lettuce Entertain You President and CEO Kevin Brown.
Big Bowl President Howard Katz.
An executive chef for Lettuce Entertain You.
In-house accountants and lawyers.
An executive administrative assistant.
The Beatrix, Hub 51, Wildfire, Joe’s Stone Crab, Mon Ami Gabi, RPM Italian, Three Dots and a Dash and L. Woods restaurants, as well as the Shaw’s Crab House outpost in Chicago. All are Lettuce Entertain You restaurants.
Then, earlier this month, Chicago for Rahm Emanuel got a total of $37,400 more in 12 contributions from Lettuce Entertain You.
This time, the contributors included three more Melmans and Scott Barton, the president of M Burger.
Another $5,600 had been given to the Emanuel campaign on Feb. 16 by Christopher Meers, the executive partner and president at 11 Lettuce Entertain You restaurants.
Through a spokesman, Melman declined to comment.
A similar pattern emerged in 2014, around the time the city allowed Big Bowl, R.J. Grunts and the company’s Wow Bao brand to open at Terminal 5 of O’Hare Airport. That time, the Chicago Tribune reported Melman family members and others involved in Lettuce Entertain You gave more than $59,000 to the mayor’s campaign fund.
On the first day he took office nearly six years ago, Emanuel promised not to take contributions from companies that do business with the city. But the self-imposed prohibition doesn’t cover campaign cash from those who are part of the concession bid teams.
It’s a giant loophole. Emanuel has no qualms about exploiting it for all it’s worth.
“Lettuce Entertain You is an incredible Chicago based company and success story,” said Emanuel campaign spokesman Pete Giangreco. “We are proud to have them as part of the project at Midway, which is creating hundreds of jobs. Since they are not a contractor, but a licensor, the contributions to the campaign are in compliance with the mayor’s executive order.”
Adam Collins, the spokesman for the mayor’s office, says Emanuel “has not and does not get involved in contracts of any kind, including this one.” He also says the Emanuel administration’s Aviation Department approved the winning bid last year after “a fair, impartial and independent selection process.”
There’s no reason to necessarily stop restaurateurs from giving political contributions to the mayor or aldermen. Almost anybody who lives, works or invests in any city needs something from local government at some point.
There’s a big difference, though, between doing business in a city and enjoying the rare opportunity to do business at some of the nation’s busiest airports.
When Emanuel accepts so much cash from Lettuce Entertain You so soon after his administration grants it such lucrative privileges, it smacks of the Chicago-style, Democratic machine power politics he promised to leave in City Hall’s sordid past.