Another week, another lousy legacy of the Richard M. Daley administration that Chicago taxpayers are just going to have to learn to live with.
Taking its place alongside the parking-meter lease deal and the unfunded pension obligations, we now have a Cook County judge’s decision leaving intact the overly generous agreement that allows the owners of the Park Grill to operate the only restaurant in Millennium Park.
About the best that can be said is that this bad deal doesn’t cost quite as much as the others.
It’s not that I have any quarrel with the decision of Judge Moshe Jacobius, who made perfect sense in finding that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration cannot so easily extricate itself from a bad business agreement made with eyes wide open by Daley’s regime.
But it’s not exactly a win for the little people.
Even if the lucrative Park Grill concession agreement wasn’t a sweetheart deal, it sure was a sweet deal for the restaurant’s owners.
Jacobius found the contract terms “extremely favorable’’ to the ownership group — so favorable he deemed them “commercially unreasonable.”
Everything from the low-base rent to the 30-year term of the lease was bent in the restaurant’s favor.
The restaurant doesn’t have to pay for property taxes, garbage removal or natural gas, which comes in quite handy when your business is cooking.
But the judge said he had no basis to attribute those favorable terms to the involvement of Chicago Park District employee Laura Foxgrover, who at the time was having an affair with Park Grill operator Matthew O’Malley and who gave birth to his daughter before the deal was finalized. They were later married.
Following the judge’s ruling, a lawyer for the restaurant said it proves there was no sweetheart deal. Emanuel persisted in calling it one.
I’ve long maintained the problem with the city lawsuit is that it was focused on the wrong sweethearts — Foxgrover and O’Malley instead of Daley and whomever.
(Please note, the term “sweetheart” deal is not usually intended so literally as it has been applied in this case.)
Many of Daley’s friends and associates were in the investor group that bankrolled the restaurant. The park was his pet project and the restaurant one of its most important features.
It made no sense for the Emanuel administration to place all the blame on Foxgrover when nothing took place involving the restaurant’s launch that wasn’t intended, all of it done with Daley’s approval.
If Foxgrover indeed took steps behind the scenes to assist O’Malley, as was alleged, then I believe she was put in her job to help accomplish that end.
On this point, the judge says Foxgrover was certainly in a position to improperly influence the bidding or negotiation process, but he said there was no hard evidence that she did so. Indeed, I never saw any.
That doesn’t mean Foxgrover is in any position to complain about where she can go to get her reputation back.
Jacobius was very clear about that, stating that the Park Grill parties “are not absolved from culpability.”
O’Malley, business partner James Horan and Foxgrover “should never have allowed an appearance of impropriety, and for that they must bow their heads and face scorn. They must live with their besmirched reputations,” Jacobius wrote in his 79-page opinion.
I’m pretty sure they’re well past the bowing their heads part, 10 years after the first Sun-Times story on the Park Grill deal.
Given her relationship with O’Malley, Foxgrover was “absolutely wrong” for having any involvement in the deal, Jacobius said, noting that her participation “tainted the entire process.”
The lawsuit served its purpose for Emanuel as a declaration of independence from Daley and his way of doing business.
But in treating the mayor’s role with kid gloves, it was ultimately a half-measure, and a costly one at that, with the lawyers’ bills surpassing $4 million even before the case went to trial.
I can’t second-guess the mayor for bringing the lawsuit, which I thought was worthwhile. Taxpayers deserved to get answers that only the legal process could uncover at that point.
At this point, though, I don’t see much room for an appeal.
Yet again, Chicago taxpayers are left holding the tab as somebody else pushes themselves away from the table.