Former Alderman's Lobbying Deal Is Latest Target in Widening Federal Investigation

Federal investigators are looking into ex-Ald. Michael Zalewski's contract with the village of Schiller Park. The subpoena followed reporting by the BGA and WBEZ detailing a previous search on Zalewski's home.

Michael Zalewski, who retired last year after serving as alderman of Chicago's 23rd ward for over two decades, was a lobbyist for the village of Schiller Park. (Bill Healy/WBEZ)

Federal authorities subpoenaed Schiller Park for records about the $5,000-per-month lobbying contract the northwest suburb had with retired Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski, the Better Government Association and WBEZ have found.

The village hired Zalewski in December and fired him in August — days after U.S. Atty. John Lausch’s office issued a grand jury subpoena, according to records the BGA and WBEZ received under a public records request.

Two weeks before the Schiller Park subpoena was issued, the BGA and WBEZ first reported federal agents searched Zalewski’s home on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Sources familiar with that investigation said in July agents were seeking records regarding the former alderman’s longtime political ally, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Three sources familiar with that federal investigation told WBEZ and the BGA that authorities were looking into alleged efforts to get work for Zalewski at ComEd and the interactions between Madigan, Zalewski and Michael McClain, a longtime ComEd lobbyist and Madigan confidant.

It is unclear how the Schiller Park subpoena is connected to the search on Zalewski’s home. Zalewski’s attorney, longtime Chicago defense lawyer Thomas Breen, declined to discuss the matter on Tuesday.

But the subpoena appears to represent another in a wide-ranging series of federal investigative activities that in recent months have touched Chicago City Hall, the state Capitol and the southwest suburban village halls of McCook, Lyons and Summit.

Amarjeet Bhachu, the assistant U.S. attorney who signed the subpoena, is one of the prosecutors involved in the federal corruption cases filed earlier this year against Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke, 14th, and state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, D-Villa Park.

The July 30 subpoena to Schiller Park sought documents “concerning the retention of, payments to, and work performed by Michael Zalewski, including items discussing the reasons for the retention of Michael Zalewski and actual work performed by Michael Zalewski.”

Since retiring from the Chicago City Council in May 2018, Zalewski has worked as a lobbyist through his home-based company, Z Consulting Group Inc. Zalewski had the side job lobbying state government during most of his time as alderman of the 23rd Ward.

Three days after the subpoena, Schiller Park officials moved to cut their ties to Zalewski and Z Consulting, according to village records.

In an emailed statement, Schiller Park Mayor Nick Caiafa said: “Based on the subpoena, the village does not believe that it is a target of the investigation. The village was not aware of any investigation and terminated the agreement with Z Consulting shortly after it received the subpoena.”

Asked if Madigan recommended Zalewski, the mayor replied, “The Village was not asked or directed by any party to hire Z Consulting.​”

Prosecutors and the FBI declined to comment Tuesday.

Zalewski, 65, was first elected to the Chicago City Council in 1995 and was a loyal ally of former mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel, serving as chairman of the powerful Aviation Committee during Emanuel’s tenure.

When Zalewski retired a year before the end of his term, Emanuel appointed another Madigan ally — then-state Rep. Silvana Tabares — to replace him as alderman of the increasingly Latino ward near Midway Airport.

Zalewski’s son, Michael J. Zalewski, is a Democratic state representative who is closely allied with Madigan.

Schiller Park hired Z Consulting Group on Dec. 20 to be their “legislative counsel,” records show.

The lobbying contract — which was approved unanimously by the suburb’s trustees — came as Zalewski was facing serious financial pressures over unpaid federal income taxes.

Zalewski got the Schiller Park deal less than two months after the Internal Revenue Service slapped him with a lien for $85,864 for back federal income taxes. In March 2019, Zalewski was hit with a second IRS lien, for another $99,770.

Schiller Park paid Zalewski a total of $35,000 before his contract was terminated, village records show.

According to the contract, the town retained Zalewski and his company “to represent its interest in business development, marketing and other governmental matters before legislative bodies, administrative bodies, boards and commissions within the State of Illinois, as well as advise and consult on matters concerning the City of Chicago.”

His monthly invoices do not specify what he did for Schiller Park. But in July, Mayor Caiafa asked Zalewski for help with a Cook County grant application. Zalewski replied in an email: “We’re on it Mayor.”

Zalewski also registered as a lobbyist for Schiller Park with the city of Chicago in June, right after a year had passed since he left the City Council. The city has a one-year “revolving door” ban on former aldermen lobbying the city. Chicago ethics officials said this week that Zalewski earlier this month amended his lobbyist disclosure to delete Schiller Park as a client.

State lobbyist filings show Zalewski also lobbied state lawmakers under a contract with Government Consulting Services of Illinois, a lobbying firm led by Frank Cortese, who did not return calls seeking comment. The firm’s clients included the Pace suburban transit agency and the village of Bridgeview.

Pace and Bridgeview officials said Tuesday they had not received subpoenas or been served with federal search warrants regarding their dealings with Zalewski.

In a statement, a Pace spokeswoman said agency officials spoke with Government Consulting Services of Illinois and Z Consulting about the federal search at Zalewski’s house but credited the firms for contributing to “many state legislative successes Pace has had,” including increased state funding. Pace officials said they plan to continue to work with the two lobbying firms at least until their contract expires in September 2020.

“Pace has had conversations with [Government Consulting Services of Illinois] and Z Consulting concerning the recent media reports,” said the agency’s spokeswoman, Maggie Daley Skogsbakken. “If their status were to change or we find this hampers our ability to be effective in Springfield, Pace is prepared to move in a different direction.”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.