With FBI agents secretly listening in, then-Chicago Ald. Danny Solis was caught on a wiretap four years ago discussing plans to solicit campaign money from a development group —whose owners include Chicago sports mogul Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the Bulls and White Sox — that needed his help at City Hall.
Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group needed Solis’ approval for a $40 million apartment complex they later built in the alderman’s 25th ward on the site of Carmichael’s steakhouse about a mile east of the United Center, the Bulls’ home.
And Solis wanted money for his campaign fund.
During a call on July 27, 2015, Solis explained — over the worries of an unidentified aide that the developers were still awaiting the alderman’s approval for the project — how he planned to solicit Reinsdorf’s business partner Thomas Meador.
According to a transcript of the call, the aide warned Solis it might be best to hold off, saying, “I didn’t know if you wanted to hit him up yet, um, just ’cause there’s, like, ’cause we haven’t settled the deal yet.”
But the alderman brushed away his aide’s concerns.
“They should be smart enough to figure out how they can give me a contribution, you know, not necessarily connecting with them, so I’m just going to tell them,” Solis said.
This was among more than 14,000 phone calls Solis made while federal agents were listening, according to the affidavit the FBI submitted on May 27, 2016, to obtain search warrants for the alderman’s home and offices as part of an ongoing investigation that has led to the indictment of Ald. Edward M. Burke, for decades the city’s most powerful alderman.
The searches of Solis’ home and offices never happened. That’s because the alderman agreed to cooperate with federal authorities, becoming one of the biggest undercover moles in Chicago history. He wore a wire for nearly two years, secretly recording conversations at City Hall including those that led to Burke’s indictment.
Meador says he doesn’t remember getting a call from Solis seeking a campaign contribution.
But a month after Solis discussed hitting up Meador for money, the alderman got $5,000 from Meador’s partner Robert Judelson and $5,000 from Al Lieberman, identified as the development group’s executive vice president, according to campaign-finance reports Solis filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Solis had begun receiving campaign contributions from the developers in March 2014.
That was a few weeks before they signed a deal to pay $10 million for Carmichael’s restaurant in the 1000 block of West Monroe Street.
Altogether, Meador, Judelson and Lieberman have made 23 campaign contributions to Solis totaling $79,300, according to campaign-finance reports the alderman filed with the state.
The reports show $17,000 of that came from Lieberman. But he says he gave Solis only “a couple thousands bucks.” And he says he isn’t the development group’s executive vice president, though he lists that title on his online LinkedIn profile.
Solis hasn’t reported getting any campaign money from Reinsdorf, who is Judelson’s partner in Bojer Financial, which manages the company that bought the restaurant and built the apartment buildings.
Judelson also is a board member of the White Sox and the Bulls’ alternate governor to the National Basketball Association.
“We obviously gave him contributions,” Meador says of Solis. “It’s public record. There was no quid pro quo. All the developers give to all the aldermen.”
Meador says he hasn’t been interviewed by the FBI in the Solis case and that he hadn’t been aware the agency named him in the Solis affidavit.
The document became public early this year after the Sun-Times discovered the U.S. district court clerk in Chicago hadn’t complied with a court order to seal it.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on Solis’ effort to solicit campaign money from a business that was awaiting his support for a project in his ward.
Solis’ attorney Lisa Noller wouldn’t comment.
Nor would Reinsdorf. A spokesman for the team owner says Reinsdorf “wasn’t going to comment on something he knew nothing about.”
If Burke, who has pleaded “not guilty,” goes to trial on charges that he demanded companies hire his law firm if they wanted permits or other official actions from City Hall, Solis could be a prosecution witness.
Historically, Chicago aldermen held great sway over development projects in their wards under the practice of “aldermanic privilege,” which Mayor Lori Lightfoot has pushed through measures to curb.
Carmichael’s had been a beloved institution in the West Loop. The restaurant even allowed neighborhood residents to use its lush garden.
So neighbors were upset when Meador’s group bought the property and demolished the building and garden, with plans to build 165 apartments.
After more than 20 community meetings, Meador’s group agreed to cut the size of the project to 120 apartments and made other concessions, including setting one of the buildings farther back from the lot line to add more green space.
“Let me just also explain that, at one point, I did downzone it to encourage positive discussions and negotiations between the community and the developer,” Solis told the zoning committee. “I think the product of what they came up with is very favorable and very — it’s going to be an asset to that community. I am sorry to see the old Carmichael’s restaurant go, but it couldn’t be helped.”
Three days later, acting on a motion from Solis, the full council approved the apartment project.
Eight months later, the FBI sought permission to search Solis’ offices based on the 120-page affidavit, which portrayed him as a financially troubled alderman who’d used his public office to get favors including free Viagra pills, sex acts at massage parlors and the free use of a farm formerly owned by Oprah Winfrey.
The affidavit also revealed that the FBI secretly recorded Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, pitching his law firm’s property tax appeal business to a developer representing a foreign businessman seeking to build a hotel in Chinatown. Solis arranged and attended that Aug. 18, 2014, meeting at the Loop offices of Madigan & Getzendanner. Solis and Madigan were unaware that the developer, See Y. Wong, had been wearing a wire for the FBI.
After the Sun-Times’ revelation in late January about the affidavit, Solis went underground, leaving his council seat vacant until his term expired in May. Solis, who didn’t seek reelection and started collecting his city pension, has been seen in Chicago and Puerto Rico.