In politics, perception often is more important than reality. And that’s why Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who understands this as well as anyone, is inexplicably undermining his own reform claims by defending the awarding of a $99.4 million cleaning contract at O’Hare Airport to a local executive with a history of alleged mob ties.
And it turns out the mob angle is only one troubling aspect of the deal with Chicago-based United Maintenance Co. and its president, Richard Simon.
Another little-known eye-opener is that Simon and Theresa Mintle, Emanuel’s chief of staff, were co-investors in a popular downtown restaurant.
They were part of a large investment group, many with ties to Mintle’s cousin, former Mayor Rich Daley, in the Park Grill, an upscale Millennium Park eatery that Daley enabled with generous government subsidies.
So now, with the O’Hare deal, we have Mintle — Emanuel’s top City Hall aide — supervising, on paper at least, the staffers who approved a contract to one of her former business partners. That raises conflict of interest questions.
United Maintenance wasn’t the lowest bidder at O’Hare; two other cleaning companies came in under but got disqualified because the city found their financial projections unrealistic.
One of those companies claims it lost out to connected insiders, but Emanuel defends the contract and the process for awarding it.
City officials are also brushing off a new revelation by Sun-Times Watchdogs that Simon sold half of United Maintenance around the time the contract was awarded without disclosing the transaction, which may violate a city transparency requirement.
Five aldermen are now asking the city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson, to investigate the contract, and he should.
As for Mintle, she won’t comment on her potential conflict, but an Emanuel spokesman says she wasn’t involved in awarding the five-year deal to United Maintenance and doesn’t “know Mr. Simon at all.”
The spokesman adds that Mintle no longer owns a piece of the Park Grill, but that rings hollow because she didn’t sell her stake.
She transferred it to her husband, Michael Toolis, CEO of a Chicago-based architecture firm that’s landed millions in government contracts.
Last year the BGA and Crain’s revealed that Mintle helped engineer a pension sweetener for herself and others in 2008, when she was at the CTA. After that disclosure, an Emanuel aide said she won’t be accepting the pension boost.
Meanwhile, Simon is also severing his ties with Park Grill, according to a statement from United Maintenance.
Simon is a onetime chairman of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, an ex-cop and a former South Loop neighbor of Daley.
His partner in another business venture was a reputed mob figure, and an executive at United Maintenance is a convicted felon with alleged mob ties.
Simon is a protégé of the late Ben Stein, a once-powerful figure in Chicago’s infamous nexus of business, unions, politics and organized crime.
Stein was considered a “mob associate,” according to Jim Wagner, the former supervisor of the FBI’s organized crime squad in Chicago.
The entire scenario feels more like the discredited “Chicago Way” than Emanuel’s self-proclaimed reform way, and that’s the perception problem.
It would be comforting to hear Emanuel acknowledge the problem and the need to take it seriously.
And, more importantly, for the inspector general to separate perception from reality.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.