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40 years later, reporters remember how they bought a bar to expose corruption

Reporters Zay Smith, Pam Zeckman, Bill Recktenwald, photographers Jim Frost and Gene Pesek attended the 40th anniversary of the Mirage Tavern sting exposing fraud and corruption in Chicago Thursday January 25, 2018. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

The Chicago Sun-Times began publishing an elaborate 25-part series in January 1978, following undercover work by a team of reporters who purchased a run-down dive bar — the Mirage tavern — to expose corrupt city inspectors who glossed over obvious code violations in exchange for bribes.

Forty years later, the reporters who worked on the undercover series shared their memories at an event moderated by editor-in-chief of the Sun-Times Chris Fusco.

“Even in an era where newspapers did a lot of undercover journalism, heavy-lifting, reporters being able to take months to do work on one story, this one stood out because of its creativity,” Fusco said. “The enormous success of this series sparked a real debate within journalism about: Is undercover reporting ethical?”

The event, held at at the same River North bar, now called Brehon Pub, featured former Sun-Times reporters Pam Zekman and Zay N. Smith, photographer Jim Frost, and Better Government Association chief investigator Bill Recktenwald, who purchased the bar with Zekman using aliases. BGA, an Illinois organization that partners with publications on investigative projects, cohosted the sold-out event.

A framed copy of the Mirage Tavern story exposing fraud and corruption in Chicago Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

Zekman said she pitched the idea to buy a tavern when she joined the Sun-Times staff from the Tribune’s investigative task force, which didn’t get approval for the idea. She said she wanted to go undercover because she had gotten complaints from small-business owners about the burden of having to pay off these inspectors.

“None of them were willing to go on camera,” she said. “Chicago does have a history for doing investigative reporting undercover when it’s necessary because there’s no other way to get the story, and there was truly no other way to get this story. We all thought it was very important to try to document it, because the corruption was so systemic.”

Zekman said it was “wonderfully refreshing” that Sun-Times editor-in-chief James Hoge supported the idea instead of trying to knock it down.

The Brehon Pub was once the Mirage Tavern. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

The reporters remembered that Phil Barasch, their accountant who went by “Mr. Fixit,” was key to pulling off the project because he acted as a middleman. For legal reasons, they could not make anyone do something they wouldn’t normally do, which Zekman said meant they couldn’t stuff cash in an inspector’s pocket, for example. But Barasch told the barkeeps which inspectors would be coming to shakedown the tavern, and he taught them to leave cash in a white envelope on the bar. That was good enough for the publication’s lawyers.

The Sun-Times wanted photographic evidence, so Frost would dress in coveralls to disguise as a repairman. He climbed a ladder to a small, dark space above the bar’s restrooms, where he had a camera set up on a tripod aimed through a peephole. The reporters manning the bar knew to place the cash envelopes where the camera was focused.

Guests toast to the Mirage Tavern on its 40th anniversary of the sting. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

An electric inspector who wanted to climb up to and take a look around that space almost blew their cover, but Frost said they were able to distract him long enough to break down the camera set up. Recording without consent was illegal in Chicago, so the reporters had to position themselves where they could overhear conversations and take notes.

The reporting and photographs made for a hilarious series that brought to light serious corruption. The project was a finalist for a Pulitzer, but in the end the tactics were considered too controversial for that recognition.