When Rahm Emanuel needed to buy a City Council to rubber stamp his agenda, the Rahm-aligned super-PAC Chicago Forward got the billionaire class to pony up to protect its interests.
Bankrolled by mega-rich donors, including Republican Bruce Rauner’s ally Ken Griffin, Chicago Forward dropped more than $4 million to protect the mayor and his closest allies and stamp out what limited council opposition to his agenda existed.
Mell’s 100% pro-Rahm voting record earned her a spot as one of the super-PAC’s top beneficiaries in 2015. The mayor’s super-PAC ultimately spent $59,438, the fourth-highest total received by a city council member, to help her hold her seat.
The Ethically Challenged
Despite rising rents in the ward, Deb Mell’s campaign didn’t have to worry about retaining an office space. Her rent? $0 a month.
This bargain rent got Mell in hot water when she was hit with an ethics complaint in 2015 detailing how she had taken thousands of dollars in free rent from her father, longtime ward boss Dick Mell, for a campaign office on Kedzie Avenue. Mell received the in-kind donations in apparent violation of a city cap limiting contributions from lobbyists; the elder Mell took up a career in lobbying after retiring mid-term to gift her his seat.
Deb Mell faced further ethical scrutiny in 2016, when former LIG Faisal Khan named her in a report as having taken thousands more in separate contributions that appeared to violate the city’s ethics rules.
Until being hit with federal extortion charges in 2018, powerful councilman Ed Burke was known as one of the city’s powerbrokers—a role he solidified by spreading around riches from his multimillion-dollar war chest.
Using the 33rd Ward Regular Democratic Organization as its receiving account, Burke’s groups slid $7,500 in Mell’s direction in 2015.
Just prior to election day, Burke handed $2,500 to the 33rd Ward group, which was controlled by Burke’s longtime machine ally Dick Mell. The same day, the Burke-chaired Burnham Committee topped it off with additional $5,000. The ward group ultimately backed Mell with $18,387 in postage, printing, and other campaign help.
Burke, the longest-serving member of the city council, now faces 20 years in federal prison as a result of the FBI’s corruption probe.
The Well Connected
Three individuals implicated in an ethics flap surrounding former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios also gave money to Mell’s campaign.
This past April the Tribune reported that “Cook County officials who decide the outcome of property tax appeals accepted more than half a million dollars in campaign donations from law firms and other businesses that help challenge tax bills,” far in violation of county ethics laws that aim to prevent quid-pro-quo dealings.
Stephen Pearlman & Associates, who gave illegal donations to assessor Joe Berrios, and Schmidt, Salzman & Moran, who donated to the three commissioners and a fund controlled by Berrios, gave a total of $1,000 to Mell’s campaign. Michael Cabonargi, one of the commissioners involved in the ethics affair, also kicked in $1,000.
Berrios, the scandal-plagued assessor, was defeated in the March 20 primary by challenger Fritz Kaegi.
Over the past few years, concert-goers expecting to see their favorite performers have encountered another sight at Chicago’s live music venues: Scabby the Rat, the giant, inflatable rodent that is used to call out businesses with unfair labor practices.
Stagehands at Jam’s venues charged that “when Jam Productions owner Jerry Mickelson heard his stagehands wanted an election so they could vote on whether to be represented by Stagehands Local 2, he fired each and every one of us at the Riviera.”
The longtime stagehands said that they looked to unionize after management denied them pay raises for the better part of a decade, even as cost of living (and ticket prices) rose.
Nonetheless, at the same time Jam said there wasn’t enough money for the workers, they found $1,250 to hand to Deb Mell. Her ward doesn’t include any of Jam’s venues, but one potential explanation came to light in 2018, when the company announced a deal with the city to receive $13 million in public TIF funds to renovate a building it had recently purchased.
The Lobbyists' Clients
In 2014, the city implemented a revolving door policy to prevent outgoing aldermen from heading directly into lucrative careers lobbying City Hall. But shortly before the law went into effect, 38-year alderman Dick Mell gifted his council seat to daughter Deb Mell and went into a different family business.
With the help of daughter Patti Blagojevich, whose husband Rod Blagojevich is serving a federal prison sentence, Dick Mell took on paid clients to help them “clarify” contract rules and steer them through the city’s permit processes.
Business appears to be good. Altogether, Dick Mell’s lobbying clients gave more than $100,000 in campaign cash to Dick, Deb, and the alderman’s ward group.
Since her appointment to office in 2013, Deb Mell has taken nearly $25,000 from three corporations and their officers who do business with her father and sister: Novak Construction ($21,200), GA Paving ($2,500) and Clark Street Real Estate ($750).