A Bad Brew
State law mandates that local mayors generally serve as their community’s liquor commissioner, meaning they’re responsible for licensing businesses that want to sell booze, and cracking down on those that sell to minors or otherwise exhibit bad behavior.
But the Better Government Association and CBS2 found a troubling trend: mayors across the Chicago region routinely take campaign contributions from restaurants, taverns and liquor stores they’re regulating.
There’s nothing necessarily illegal about this, but the practice raises questions about who’s really being served by the liquor commissioners – residents worried about drunks, noise and underage drinking, or business owners angling to maximize profits by over-serving patrons, staying open later than legally allowed and selling beer to minors.
The practice presents a deeper conflict-of-interest when problems arise in establishments that have donated money to a mayor-liquor commissioner. Will he or she objectively address those troubles, going so far as to suspend or revoke a donor’s liquor license? Even if the answer’s yes, will the perception of a quid pro quo undermine public confidence in the process?
The BGA and CBS2 posed those questions to a number of municipal officials, who uniformly insisted they were able to carry out their jobs without undue influence. Even so, the BGA – a Chicago-based nonprofit that exposes problems in the public sector and proposes solutions – supports restrictions on these types of campaign donations to avoid favoritism and to ensure public safety.
Among those interviewed was Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, whose campaign fund collected more than $48,000 from liquor license holders in the far west suburb since 2004, according to public records and interviews.
Last year Weisner accepted a $5,000 donation from La Quinta de los Reyes, around the same time the Mexican eatery was facing scrutiny by the city for possible liquor code violations, records show.
The donation was in the form of food for a political fund-raiser, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Jesus Sanchez, a partner in the restaurant, said somebody affiliated with Weisner’s campaign approached La Quinta about hosting a campaign event, and his group obliged.
Sanchez said that decision had nothing to do with trying to curry favor.
"We always help him, since the first time he ran for office," Sanchez said of Weisner, who was first elected mayor in 2005. "I feel personally that he has done a lot for our community."
The city held a liquor violation hearing in April 2012, the month after the fundraiser, to adjudicate an alleged battery from March 2012 (days before the Weisner event) and the alleged sale of alcohol to a minor in 2011, records show.
The city ultimately dropped the battery violation, but La Quinta was hit with a $500 fine for the under-21 sale, city records show.
Weisner said he long ago delegated most liquor license responsibilities to underlings in city government, so he didn’t know about La Quinta’s issues in depth and wasn’t involved in its hearing. What’s more, he said his supporters handled the fundraiser, not him.
Still, he said he understands how this may look, so will further distance himself from liquor licensing by creating a three-person panel to handle most duties into the future.
"If people view it as a problem I have to look at it candidly, rationally," Weisner said, adding there’s absolutely no tit-for-tat in terms of campaign donations.
"I think I’ve worked pretty hard to develop my reputation. . . . I wouldn’t sacrifice that for these kinds of things."
Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson echoed that sentiment, and said logic dictates that political people will get most of their campaign money from their respective communities.
"Probably a case could be made that everybody who does business with the Village of Schaumburg should not donate to my campaign," Larson said. But then, "I wouldn’t have any funds at all."
Since 1999, Larson’s campaign has collected at least $74,000 from liquor establishments in the northwest suburb, including nearly $12,000 from a restaurant operator that includes Moretti’s and $8,500 from Hooters, state records show.
"There are establishments that don’t contribute to my campaign, there are some that do, they’re treated the same . . . there’s no distinction," Larson said.
Among other BGA/CBS2 findings:
+ During the same time period, Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar’s campaign accepted nearly $80,000 from liquor license holders in his far southwest suburb, records show.
+ In Bridgeview, Mayor Steve Landek’s campaign funds accepted more than $24,000 over the years from liquor establishments in his southwest suburb, including $210 from a bar called the Tiger Lounge. Following a series of problems, including fights, Landek just recently yanked its liquor license, records show.
+ In Markham, Mayor David Webb accepted a similar amount of campaign money from local businesses with liquor licenses, including $7,000 from a banquet hall/sports bar called Adrianna’s that has had various problems requiring a police response, records show.
In an interview, Webb said he didn’t know about all of the police calls – many for fights – and will look into the situation. He said he will re-evaluate the hours the banquet hall is allowed to serve alcohol and, to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, consider not taking campaign donations from liquor license holders any more.
A written statement from Adrianna’s attributed at least some of the calls to a former bar in the area, and indicated the police calls "that truly were initiated by Adrianna’s are the result of the high standard we place upon ‘safety first’ for all of our patrons, staff and neighbors in the area."
The statement also described Webb as "a leader with a long range vision."
Restrictions – self-imposed or otherwise – on these types of donations would likely be well received beyond the BGA.
Gloria Materre is executive director of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, a government agency that licenses liquor establishments across the state (in addition to local municipalities) and conducts stings to root out the sale of alcohol to minors.
Materre noted employees of her agency are barred from accepting anything of value from the liquor industry.
"It would follow that local municipalities would have rules, too," she said. "But they don’t."
With limited exceptions.
The Village of Downers Grove has an ordinance on the books that bans liquor license holders and applicants from "directly or indirectly making campaign contributions . . . to elected officials" in town.
Liquor establishments that do make a donation could face fines or even the revocation of their license.
"This kind of regulation is consistent with our community values," said Village Manager David Fieldman. "We know it’s [unusual] among municipalities."
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth and CBS2’s Pam Zekman. Additional reporting was done by the BGA’s Katie Drews and intern Bailey Dick. Policy research was conducted by the BGA’s Emily Miller and Caitlin Kearney. To reach the BGA, try (312) 821-9030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.