If you think smoke-filled back rooms are a thing of the past for Chicago-area politicians, think again.
An upscale cigar shop and lounge in southwest suburban Countryside is proving to be an intriguing — and, until now, little-known — link to political players involved in an ongoing federal corruption investigation that saw agents swoop into Chicago and the southwest suburbs over the last two weeks, seizing records and interviewing public officials.
The business, Casa De Montecristo, offers choice cigars for sale, a living room-type space to unwind with a blazing fireplace where customers can puff away while watching sports on a large-screen TV and a separate “VIP room” in the basement, accessible by elevator, that offers dim-lighting, booths straight out of a Rat Pack-era nightclub, televisions and a bar for special events. Attractive women were often on hand working as servers.
In the parking lot one recent day: BMWs, an Audi and a yellow Lamborghini.
It turns out a central figure in the corruption probe, Omar Maani of Burr Ridge, often entertained or otherwise socialized with political figures there, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.
“It’s your ultimate man cave,” said one politician who declined to be named.
Maani was there so often, in fact, that many people — including his business partners in other endeavors — thought he owned the swanky establishment. These days some of them believe he was something else: A businessman who was secretly cooperating with federal authorities as they attempted to snare local politicians.
No one has been publicly charged with crimes or otherwise accused of wrongdoing, and it’s unclear what role, if any, the cigar lounge played in the case, beyond an aromatic nexus for some of the players.
Records indicate there are other owners of the cigar business, including Sam Khalil, who described Maani as “just a customer” who used to visit regularly, but not so much in the last two years.
As for any politicians who stopped by, Khalil said they were just like any other patron: “They came and shopped, a lot of them left, some of them stayed and smoked a cigar . . . I don’t look at my customers and profile everyone.”
Federal authorities wouldn’t comment.
Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, for a time, was a regular at the lounge, often with Maani, a source said, adding that besides cigars, bourbon or other drinks sometimes flowed along with good conversation.
Tobolski, who hasn’t responded to repeated messages from the Sun-Times, is also the mayor of McCook, a tiny but influential suburb whose village hall was raided Sept. 26 by federal agents armed with a search warrant looking for a variety of records.
The cigar shop has donated more than $35,000 to Tobolski’s campaign fund, records show.
Tobolski’s chief of staff at county government, Pat Doherty, moonlights as a “consultant” for a red-light camera contractor called SafeSpeed, LLC, which operates in a number of suburbs and includes Maani as an investor.
As the Sun-Times previously reported, Doherty said he was questioned by FBI and IRS agents the same day as the McCook raid about a different company run by Maani that received taxpayer money through county government to build low-income housing in Summit and Cicero.
One of the recipients of campaign donations from the cigar lounge was Cicero Town President Larry Dominick, records show. Dominick also frequented the cigar bar, another source said.
His political fund was given $250 in 2017. In 2018, Dominick’s campaign was given $750 in cigars, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records.
Dominick’s campaign spent more than $28,000 there since 2014, mostly on “precinct captain” events, records show.
Dominick’s top municipal attorney, Michael Del Galdo, runs a law firm that once employed Maani as a law clerk about 15 years ago, according to a law firm spokesman who said that there’d been no known contact between the feds and Cicero officials in the current investigation.
Asked about Dominick, Khalil said, “I can’t comment on that.”
The cigar business also donated $4,000 to the Village Party in Summit, run by local Mayor Sergio Rodriguez and political operative Bill Mundy.
Federal agents interviewed Rodriguez on Sept. 26 about his town’s contract with SafeSpeed, as well as the low-income townhomes built by Maani’s other company, sources have said.
The agents also tried to interview Mundy — formerly the Lyons Township supervisor — but he lawyered up.
Federal agents also raided the Lyons village hall and Mayor Chris Getty’s private insurance business on Sept. 26.
Getty socialized at various times at Casa De Montecristo, according to sources.
Getty didn’t return calls from the Sun-Times.
Overall, the cigar shop has donated more than $50,000 in recent years to different political organizations, including the campaign of state Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat. Tobolski threw a political fundraiser for Cullerton at the cigar shop at least once, a source said.
A Cullerton colleague who’s done consulting work for the Town of Cicero, state Sen. Martin Sandoval, also accepted campaign money from the establishment, including $1,000 in 2015, records show.
Sandoval’s Chicago home, and Cicero and Springfield legislative offices, were visited by federal agents two days before the other raids.
One of former Ald. Michael Zalewski’s campaign funds also has spent money there.
Earlier this year, Zalewski resigned from the City Council and his campaign hired a criminal defense attorney, though for what isn’t clear.
None of those officials returned phone calls requesting comment.