Check, Please?

Oak Brook village president approves liquor license for Gibsons, then accepts $10,000 campaign donation from restaurant—but it’s not the only conflict-of-interest question being raised.

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COMMENTARY: BGA Urges Reform in Wake of Oak Brook Village Investigations

Months after signing off on a liquor license so Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse could open a new outpost last year in Oak Brook, the village president for the west suburb—who doubles as its liquor commissioner—accepted a $10,000 campaign contribution from the restaurant.

Gibsons owner Steve Lombardo said that he’d been looking to expand his operation—which is a fixture on Rush Street and also has a location in Rosemont—to Oak Brook for years and that the donation to Oak Brook Village President John W. Craig was meant as "a gesture" from a new business in town.

Craig, 76, said he’s not sure what prompted the October contribution but thinks a campaign aide might have solicited it through a mailing.

Still, Craig said it was a mistake to accept the money and that he has given it back.

"It’s improper, inappropriate, I think" to keep it, Craig said. "Why would I take money from an establishment that’s dispensing liquor and I’m the liquor commissioner?"

It isn’t the first time Craig has been involved in a controversy over his role as the chief regulator of bars and restaurants that sell alcohol in Oak Brook.

Oak Brook’s police chief opened an internal investigation after a late-night incident Nov. 13 at the Sky nightclub involving the police and Craig.

According to police records and interviews, two officers had stopped by for what the police describe as a routine "bar check" to make sure all was well after an altercation there the previous night and an allegation that alcohol was being dispensed after closing time. The officers were talking with a bouncer when they were summoned inside by someone who said Craig was there and wanted to speak with them, according to police documents.

"Craig was intoxicated and began by yelling what the problem was and why we were there," according to a police memo obtained by the Better Government Association.

Written by one of the two responding officers, Garrett Church, the memo continued: "I told him we were doing a bar check, and he told us we had no reason to be coming there unless there was a problem."

Craig, who is a former police officer, "pulled out his retired badge and told us that he was a trooper and a sheriff and that he was going to get us fired," Church wrote.

Other police documents indicate that Craig poked the other responding officer, George Peterson, in the chest and later grabbed the arm of a sergeant while being given a ride home by police.

Craig denies any wrongdoing. He said he showed up at Sky in his capacity as village liquor commissioner to check on things after the fight there the previous night. He said a Sky employee put a drink in front of him, and he took a sip not knowing it contained alcohol. But he added that that was all the booze he had that night and that he wasn’t drunk.

Craig acknowledged that he yelled at the officers. He said he was upset they arrived like "John Wayne," "coming in really rough." Craig said it’s important that Oak Brook be seen as business-friendly.

Craig said he suspects that Officer Peterson might want him to look bad because he is "very close to my opponent," referring to Dr. Gopal Lalmalani, a cardiologist who sits on the Oak Brook Plan Commission and is challenging Craig in the suburb’s April election.

Peterson declined to comment, citing department policy. Lalmalani, 61, called Craig’s assertion "sort of ridiculous," saying he has never heard of Peterson.

Although he said he suspects Peterson acted disrespectfully toward the village president inside Sky—in an interview, Sheahan alternately portrayed Peterson as a troublemaker and as "a good officer"—there’s no proof of wrongdoing by the cops. And there’s no indication the village president did anything wrong, Sheahan said.

"It’s a ‘he said, she said,’ " said Police Chief Thomas Sheahan, who opened the internal investigation after the BGA began asking about the incident. "I have conflicting reports...I think everybody acted appropriately, as far as I know right now."

One of Sky’s managers, Reggie Benjamin, suggested to the BGA that a video surveillance camera captured the real story—and will show "the cops are lying." But if there is a recording, it’s apparently not in the possession of the police or village.

Lalmalani said the incident underscored the problems inherent in having a political figure involved in liquor-license regulation. The job ought to be assigned to a committee to limit the potential for abuse and conflicts of interest, he said.

Oak Brook Village Clerk Charlotte Pruss served as a sort of check on the process when she handled the administrative aspects of issuing liquor licenses. But in 2009, after she fined Grotto Oak Brook, a restaurant-bar, $500 for missing a license-filing deadline, Craig transferred those duties to the police department.

Craig has held two political fund-raisers at Grotto but said that had nothing to do with his decision to transfer Pruss’ responsibilities or refund the $500 to Grotto.

He said he made the switch because Pruss issued the $500 fine to Grotto without due process, and without first telling him.

Craig said the criticism he’s being hit with is really about politics—and he’s tiring of it. If he wins the April election, he said, it likely will be his last term in office.