Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri, who for years moonlighted as village president of Elmwood Park, took on a new side job in 2013 — as a sales agent for a video gambling firm that, months later, began installing poker and slot machines in the west suburb.
Silvestri — an attorney who makes $85,000 a year as a county commissioner — says he made thousands of dollars in commissions off that deal.
And he was later aided in a second deal when his successor in Elmwood Park blocked a rival company from opening a gambling parlor, which allowed Silvestri’s firm to put machines in the same location.
Since 2013, the year Silvestri left his Elmwood Park village government post, he has been a sales agent for Gold Rush Amusements, which leases gambling machines to bars, restaurants and video parlors, Illinois Gaming Board records show. Gold Rush is owned by Rick Heidner, whom Silvestri says he’s been friends with since childhood.
Silvestri, a Republican, won’t detail his financial arrangement with Gold Rush but acknowledges he was paid at least thousands of dollars as a result of the deals in Elmwood Park.
It’s common practice for sales agents to be paid $10,000 or more for placing machines in a gambling establishment.
Silvestri says he has arranged 10 to 15 such placements for Gold Rush, including two locations in Elmwood Park.
According to state campaign-finance records, Heidner and his companies have made more than $16,000 in campaign contributions since 2001 to Silvestri and his successor in Elmwood Park, Angelo “Skip” Saviano.
Silvestri says most of the machine-placement contracts he arranged for Gold Rush were with Laredo Hospitality, a chain that operates more than 50 gambling parlors statewide under the names Stella’s Place and Shelby’s.
In December, Stella’s opened a parlor stocked with Gold Rush machines in an Elmwood Park strip mall near North Avenue and Harlem. Silvestri says he was Gold Rush’s sales agent on the deal.
A Stella’s competitor, Blackhawk Restaurant Group, had sought to open in the same location but was blocked by Saviano, who, like most mayors and village presidents, also serves as his suburb’s liquor commissioner. Saviano says he refused to give Blackhawk the liquor license that state law requires to open a video gambling parlor.
Saviano says Blackhawk already had one location in Elmwood Park, and he didn’t want to appear to be “in bed” with the firm by allowing it to open a second.
Silvestri and Heidner say there was no favoritism. “This is not the way we play,” Heidner says.
Separately, in Bridgeview, Mayor Steven Landek has used his authority as head of the southwest suburb’s government to grant two liquor licenses since August 2014 to Blackhawk.
Michael Thiessen — who holds a minority ownership stake in Blackhawk’s parent company — and Landek are among the owners of Southwest Community News Group, a small chain of suburban newspapers.
Blackhawk operates 67 gambling parlors statewide that cater to female customers. Located primarily in strip malls under the names of Penny’s, Betty’s and Emma’s, Blackhawk’s sites have brought in more than $33 million after taxes, gaming board records show.
Blackhawk opened its first Bridgeview location in August 2014 and its second last August just around the corner at 7230 W. 87th St.
In 2013, Dotty’s Cafe, a competitor, had scouted the 87th Street site and asked village officials about obtaining a liquor license but got no response, according to James Lang, the company’s director of government relations. “No return emails, no return phone calls,” Lang says.
Landek declined to comment. Bridgeview village spokesman Ray Hanania, who also writes opinion columns that appear in the newspaper owned by Landek and Thiessen, says Dotty’s “dropped the ball” by never submitting an application for a liquor license — an assertion Lang says isn’t true.
Thiessen says he didn’t seek any favors from Landek. “If I would have known we wanted that store, we would get there first — not second,” he says.
Casey Toner is a Better Government Association investigator.