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After lucky deal, felon John Thomas could profit from COVID-19 precautions

A developer who helped feds probe corruption but went to prison himself owns the former Sherman Hospital in Elgin, which the state needs to lease.

John Thomas
John Thomas
Provided

John Thomas has had a colorful part in the history of Chicago political corruption and its intersection with real estate development.

He’s a twice-convicted felon who wore a wire that helped the Justice Department build its case against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, developer and onetime political insider Antoin “Tony” Rezko and others.

Thomas is back working property deals in the city and the suburbs, including one that connects him to the state’s efforts to combat the coronavirus. A Thomas-connected partnership owns the former Sherman Hospital in Elgin the state has occupied in case it needs it for COVID-19 victims. He acquired it in 2019 for about $1 million.

“I buy real estate well. We cut a good deal,” Thomas said. The state on March 31 filed notices in Kane County Circuit Court and with the recorder’s office certifying it is using emergency powers to lease the unused building. Compensation must be determined by the court.

But Thomas thinks he will do well based on what he knows about another state deal for hospital space.

“I know what they’re paying for MetroSouth [hospital] in Blue Island. It’s $837,000 a month. I made them an offer for substantially less than that,” he said, declining to get into specifics.

My Sun-Times colleague Jon Seidel checked the Kane County court filing. In it, the state said it is obtaining an expert opinion about fair compensation. A separate document notes the owner is willing to accept, for a temporary taking, “$3 million net per annum for a one-year lease with substantial escalations for the following years,” as well as a $1 million security deposit with rent paid in advance for six months.

The document appears to have been signed by Thomas and cites his company, Freedom Development Group. A hearing is set for July 16, court records show.

Rebecca Clark, spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, could not confirm what the state is paying to lease MetroSouth. As for the Elgin facility, Clark said, “This met a need in our state response plan.” It’s set up for 283 COVID-19 patients but hasn’t received anyone so far, she said.

For Thomas, it’s another case of being right where a government agency needs him. The man has an uncanny knack for that and for placing himself in powerful circles.

In 2004, he was convicted of a billboard leasing scam in New York, but he bought himself leniency by cooperating with the federal government in its corruption probes here. When he was finally sentenced in 2010, he got probation and a fine after the government advised the judge of Thomas’ cooperation in other matters put in a sealed file.

John Thomas leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2014 after his indictment for allegedly defrauding Riverdale. He was convicted a year later.
John Thomas leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in 2014 after his indictment for allegedly defrauding Riverdale. He was convicted a year later.
Sun-Times file

But Thomas fell hard in 2015. He was convicted of stealing $370,000 from south suburban Riverdale on promises of redeveloping a marina. The trial produced damaging details about sexual trysts, alcohol abuse and deceptive behavior such as trying to sell a fake Babe Ruth-signed baseball. He was released from prison early in 2017.

This gets into what Thomas wants to convey about himself, to the public or anyone liable to do business with him. Thomas said last week he’s almost done making restitution to Riverdale. “I’ve paid over $300,000. My final payment of $90,000 will be made in the next two weeks. Not many guys make their restitution,” he said.

At Thomas’ sentencing, Riverdale Mayor Lawrence Jackson said the true extent of the fraud was closer to $1 million. Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.

Seldom shy about discussing his past, Thomas said, “My background doesn’t define me as an individual. It defines a mistake I made.” He said he has repaired family relationships, improved his health, hired other ex-inmates and emphasized charitable acts, such as a giveaway of 1,000 turkeys in Park Forest, where he plans to open one of several grocery stores called Jet Foods.

The store at 120 S. Orchard Drive will be open in 30 days, and a store in Rockford should be ready in about 60 days, Thomas said. He said he’s also negotiating for sites in Naperville, Harvey, Olympia Fields, Des Plaines and at 47th and Bishop streets in the city.

In the past, Thomas said he became desperate by trying to do everything in establishing businesses. Now, he said, he has partners to help with operations, legal matters and finances.

To those who might steer clear of him because of his record, Thomas said, “Here’s what I’d say. ‘We’re going to be putting a supermarket where there hasn’t been one in years.’”

The name Jet stands for his initials — he’s John Everest Thomas, and he has served his time. He’s got one more shot at redemption.

The old Sherman Hospital location in Elgin
The old Sherman Hospital campus in Elgin is owned by a partnership affiliated with developer John Thomas.
Brian Hill/Daily Herald