THE WATCHDOGS: Ex-county housing chairman cashing in

SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: Ex-county housing chairman cashing in

Elzie Higginbottom. | Sun-Times file photo

With Mayor Richard M. Daley’s City Hall tenure coming to a close in 2011, longtime Daley aide and political operative Richard Monocchio needed a job.

Monocchio — Daley’s last city buildings commissioner — landed one thanks to Elzie Higginbottom, a wealthy businessman who’s been one of the key campaign backers for Daley, former Gov. Pat Quinn, Hillary Clinton and numerous other politicians.

Higginbottom — who was chairman of the board of the Housing Authority of Cook County — had a long relationship with Monocchio.

Monocchio had helped run government agencies that oversee housing developments run by Higginbottom’s East Lake Management & Development Corp., one of the largest managers of public housing in Chicago. And East Lake’s president is the mother of Monocchio’s children.

Higginbottom and the rest of the board hired Monocchio as the $150,000-a-year executive director of the housing authority, which oversees government-subsidized housing in the suburbs.

Months after Monocchio took over the authority’s operations, Higginbottom resigned from the board after another of his companies, Burling Builders, got a contract from a nonprofit agency the authority created.

Higginbottom left after hearing from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

“It became clear to me in my first term that Mr. Higginbottom was in a position where there could have been a conflict in his position as board chairman and his company doing business with the authority,” Preckwinkle says. “I expressed my concerns to him, and he resigned.”

Higginbottom couldn’t get business from the housing authority for one year after he left, under the agency’s revolving-door policy.

Now, Higginbottom is cashing in on another deal involving the government agency he formerly headed. Under a $17.8 million contract with the county agency, Burling is renovating subsidized apartment complexes in Arlington Heights and Skokie — a deal Higginbottom’s company says will give it a profit of about $700,000.

Higginbottom is one of a small group of businessmen in Chicago who develop and manage subsidized housing.

“If you do affordable housing, you have to go to those agencies,” Higginbottom says. “That’s where the money is.”

“A lot of times in affordable housing, you see the same players,” says Polly Kuehl, a housing authority board member who says she didn’t know Higginbottom owns Burling.

Monocchio and his staff oversaw the bidding process and recommended the authority’s board hire Higginbottom’s company. He says he had to because Burling was the low bidder, offering the lowest price to do the work.

“There was no discretion at all,” Monocchio says.

He didn’t tell the housing authority’s board, though, that he has two teenage sons with one of Higginbottom’s top executives, Eileen Rhodes, who is president of East Lake.

“That has had nothing to do with the decisions I make,” Monocchio says.

He says he never discussed the Burling project with Rhodes, who began working for Higginbottom nearly 20 years ago, when she and Monocchio were living together. They no longer do.

“We don’t have shop talk,” Monocchio says of Rhodes, describing their current relationship this way: “I pick up the kids. We co-parent.”

Richard Monocchio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

Richard Monocchio, executive director of the Housing Authority of Cook County. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

The housing authority requires its employees to disclose whether family or household members have any financial interest in a contract with the county agency.

Monocchio and Rhodes never married.

They and Higginbottom say Rhodes has no involvement with Burling and had nothing to do with the authority hiring the construction company.

“I don’t know what Burling Builders does,” Higginbottom says. “I don’t run Burling Builders. I own stock in it.”

According to the company’s filings with the Illinois secretary of state’s office, Higginbottom is the president of Burling, and he owns 90 percent of the company.

John Girzadas, Burling’s executive vice president, says he runs Burling’s day-to-day operations but keeps Higginbottom apprised of contracts and bids.

Some housing board members say they knew Monocchio had a relationship with Rhodes. Others say they didn’t or didn’t know they had children.

“Should he have disclosed it? Probably,” says Saul Klibanow, one of the six board members who approved the contract with Higginbottom’s company in July 2015 at Monocchio’s recommendation.

Hipolito “Paul” Roldan, who replaced Higginbottom as chairman of the authority’s board, says this is something the board probably will discuss now that he’s aware of the relationship. But Roldan says the contract was awarded “in an open, competitive process.”

Preckwinkle says she knew about Monocchio and Rhodes’ relationship.

“It didn’t matter to me,” says Preckwinkle, who has gotten more than $45,000 in campaign contributions from Higginbottom and his companies since 1999, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records. “They’re not married, and they haven’t been together for 10 years.”

Preckwinkle says Monocchio is “a really decent guy.”

The Armond King Apartments in Skokie — one of the subsidized apartment complexes Burling Builders is renovating for the Cook County Housing Authority.| Tim Boyle/Sun-Times

The Armond King Apartments in Skokie — one of the subsidized apartment complexes Burling Builders is renovating for the Cook County Housing Authority.| Tim Boyle/Sun-Times

Higginbottom’s construction company is one of several clout-heavy businesses the authority hired for the rehabilitation of more than 200 apartments for senior citizens and disabled people in Arlington Heights and Skokie — a $28 million project being paid for by local, state and federal tax money and private financing.

The architect is Globetrotters Engineering Corp. headed by Niranjan Shah, a prolific campaign fund-raiser for Rod Blagojevich who was appointed by the now-imprisoned former governor as chairman of the University of Illinois board of trustees. Shah, his company and employees have contributed to Preckwinkle’s political campaigns, including $2,500 last year, state records show.

The Albert Goedke House in Arlington Heights — one of the subsidized apartment complexes Burling Builders is working on. | Tim Boyle/Sun-Times

The Albert Goedke House in Arlington Heights — one of the subsidized apartment complexes Burling Builders is working on. | Tim Boyle/Sun-Times

A small amount of the legal work on the project was done by Daley’s nephew, Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), and his law firm until Monocchio replaced them with the firm Reyes Kurson. That law firm is headed by Victor Reyes, a former top Daley aide who ran the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a patronage army that worked to get Daley and his political allies re-elected. As Daley’s director of intergovernmental affairs, Reyes helped Monocchio land two of his high-ranking city jobs, sources say.

Reyes, whose law firm stands to be paid more than $200,000, calls Monocchio a “high-integrity individual” who’s “beyond reproach.”

Higginbottom, Monocchio and Rhodes began crossing paths in the 1990s at the Chicago Housing Authority following its takeover by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a result of widespread problems at the city agency.

Eileen Rhodes, president of Elzie Higginbottom’s East Lake Management & Development Corp. | Provided photo

Eileen Rhodes, president of Elzie Higginbottom’s East Lake Management & Development Corp. | Provided photo

Rhodes, 50, grew up near the CHA’s since-demolished Cabrini-Green public housing project on the North Side, had a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and was studying for a master’s degree at the University of Chicago when she landed a job with the CHA in April 1995.

Six months later, Monocchio, now 55, left a job with HUD in Washington, D.C., to return to Chicago as a special assistant to Joseph Shuldiner, who’d been appointed by HUD to run the CHA.

Under Shuldiner, Higginbottom says East Lake began managing CHA properties including Rockwell Gardens on the Near West Side, which later was demolished. It was replaced with smaller apartment buildings that were built by Burling and are still managed by East Lake for the CHA.

Monocchio says he and Rhodes began dating in 1996. She left the CHA a year later. She says she was in graduate school at the time and needed an internship, so she went to work for a nonprofit company. By the end of that year, the couple had purchased a condo in Little Italy, property records show.

After finishing the internship, Rhodes says she called Higginbottom for a job and went to work for East Lake.

Monocchio left the CHA in 1998, taking a job as chief of staff to Chicago Aviation Commissioner Mary Rose Loney, a job sources say was arranged by Daley’s inner circle, including Reyes, to monitor Loney, whose efforts to reform airport purchasing rules upset many insiders.

Monocchio later was named first deputy to Housing Commissioner Jack Markowski, whose agency helped fund housing developments for East Lake, approving $2 million in housing tax credits for the redevelopment of Rockwell Gardens, city records show.

During Monocchio’s time at City Hall, Rhodes gave birth to the couple’s two sons, and they moved to a new condo on the West Side. According to Monocchio, they split up in 2006. Records show he transferred his ownership stake in their condo to her in May 2008.

In December 2008, Daley appointed Monocchio as Chicago’s buildings commissioner.

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel succeeded Daley in May 2011, Monocchio found himself out of a job that had paid him $162,228 a year.

Rhodes says she knew Monocchio was looking for work but didn’t lobby Higginbottom to hire him at the housing authority.

Monocchio says Higginbottom “knew my work. I was one of the people recommended to the board, probably by him.

“Whenever I go into a place, I have a reputation of making it run better,” says Monocchio, whose current salary is $156,060. “When you look at my resume, it’s not a stretch to be hired by the county housing authority.”

Monocchio started at the county agency in July 2011.

Ten months later, Higginbottom stepped down after two decades amid questions about Burling having been awarded a $3.2 million deal from the nonprofit agency created by the county housing authority as general contractor for a public housing development in Summit. Higginbottom was on the board of the nonprofit as well as chairing the housing authority.

Higginbottom denies leaving because of the conflict-of-interest questions, saying he wanted to spend time with his children.

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