The chairman of the City Council’s Zoning Committee questioned Wednesday whether the owner of Chicago’s most notorious strip club — whose trucking company lost a sexual harassment lawsuit — is fit to open a medical marijuana dispensary in the Fulton Market area.
Ald. Danny Solis (25th) said he would follow the longstanding City Council tradition of “aldermanic prerogative” on zoning issues and “defer” to Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose ward includes the vacant building at 1105 W. Fulton where Perry Mandera wants to open a dispensary catering to military veterans.
But, Solis said he knows what he would do if Mandera were trying to open a similar facility in his ward. He would reject the application.
“The reputation he has endured — I wouldn’t want it in my ward because I know the neighborhoods I represent would not want that type of establishment because of the allegations of wrongdoing. The communities I represent I don’t think would want the type of businesses he represents,” Solis said before Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
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Solis said he’s troubled by Mandera’s history as owner of VIP’s A Gentleman’s Club, the strip club billed as “Chicago’s only full liquor and topless bar” that paid the city $2.5 million in back taxes to resolve a marathon legal battle.
But the Zoning chairman said he is even more concerned about the sexual harassment lawsuit that Mandera’s trucking company lost after female employees claimed they had to take sales customers to their boss’ strip club.
“That’s more personal. That involves a woman saying, ‘This person did not respect me,’ ” Solis said.
Burnett refused to comment on the cloud hanging over Mandera. The alderman said he would await community hearings before deciding whether to support the strip club owner’s application for a medical marijuana dispensary license.
“Right now, I don’t support anyone. I’m waiting to have community meetings. I don’t pass judgment on anybody. We’re just waiting to see what the community says,” Burnett said.
“I have no comments about his background. We deal with those issues with the community, and I make my decision based on the community. I’m not going after anyone’s personal character — not him or anybody else.”
Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration allowed the Mandera-owned strip club to stay open in exchange for $2.5 million in disputed back taxes and legal fees.
The mayor softened the blow of a settlement that resolved a 19-year legal battle by using the money to establish a new shelter for victims of domestic violence.
The city had tried since 1993 to shut the club down on grounds its dancers exposed too much of the female anatomy. Attorneys representing Mandera had long insisted that VIP’s dancers do not show too much breast and derriere. They also challenged the constitutionality of a city ordinance that makes it illegal to sell liquor and offer semi-nude dancing at the same establishment.
On top of that battle, Mandera’s trucking firm in 2002 faced legal scrutiny after two female employees filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that led to a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit contends that female sales representatives were subjected on a daily basis to sexual harassment — including lewd and graphic language, sexual propositions and pornographic materials.
It also alleges that the women had to take their sales clients to Mandera’s former strip club, Crazy Horse.
In court documents, the women claim they were threatened by their boss after filing the complaint.
Mandera is alleged to have said, “Things are going to get ugly, that I am going to rake you through the coals, that you will never work in this industry again, that lives are going to be ruined, that families are going to be ruined, and that wives are going to be dragged into this. And I have deeper pockets than you, and I will outlast you, and I don’t lose at anything.”
Another employee threatened one of the women that she would be “whacked,” court records show.
In a deposition, Mandera is alleged to have said rape is the only thing that would qualify as sexual harassment, court records show.
In 2006, a jury ruled in favor of the women and awarded them $2.3 million, court records show. But in 2008, the two women settled with Mandera’s firm and received $200,000 each, court records show.
Mandera’s background did not come up at a community meeting hosted Wednesday by the Randolph-Fulton Market Association.
When a community member asked Mandera why he chose the West Loop, he said, “I grew up not very far from here. This is a very populated area. It’s a wonderful area, centrally located. It’s a good area for people to get in and out of. It’s a great community.”
Mandera declined to comment after the meeting. So did one of his lawyers, Brendan Shiller, the son of former independent Ald. Helen Shiller (46th).
Another of Mandera’s lawyers, Sara Barnes, who works for the politically connected zoning law firm Samuel V.P. Banks, said Mandera is also seeking to open a medical marijuana cultivation center on the Southeast Side of the city at 12233 S. Avenue O.
One other group also seeks to get in the medical pot business in the West Loop.
Ben Kovler and his group Green Thumb Industries hope to open a dispensary at 955 W. Lake. Kovler’s group has also applied for four cultivation centers around the state, but not in the city.
Though Mandera’s business history did not come up at the community gathering, Trish San Juan, 37, a neighborhood resident who attended the meeting, said she would prefer Kovler’s group be granted the state license in her area and not just because she prefers the Lake Street location for such an enterprise.
She said, “I like the integrity of Ben’s company better.”