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Developer hit up for donation by Solis: ‘Impossible’ to operate without aldermen

Nobu Hotel

The Nobu Hotel project at 854 W. Randolph St., on Wednesday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A few days after the City Council gave its blessing to a luxury hotel development in the West Loop in the summer of 2015, a key contractor on the project took a phone call from a Chicago alderman.

“Hi Spiro,” the call allegedly began. “How ya doin’? This is Danny Solis.”

Small talk followed between the 25th ward alderman and Spiro Tsaparas, CEO of Centaur Construction. But eventually, Solis asked Tsaparas to attend a political fundraiser, according to a federal court affidavit obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. Then, Tsaparas allegedly asked Solis to help his brother-in-law get a job.

That’s another small piece of the case investigators had been building against Solis in 2016, when the document was filed. But Wednesday, Tsaparas told the Sun-Times his brother-in-law never even got an interview — much less a job. And he insisted his request had no connection to Solis’ fundraiser.

Then, Tsaparas offered his insight into a system seemingly designed to encourage such interactions, in which developers are implicitly encouraged to give financial support to members of the City Council.

“I am not that big of a fish,” Tsaparas said. “I swim in that pond because I’m making a living. I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors over there. I have not personally experienced anything.”

Tsaparas said that he’s never been strong-armed into direct pay-to-play. In fact, when he gives financial support to an alderman, he said, there’s no guarantee things will go his way at City Hall. But, he said, “it is impossible to operate in the real estate development world without having a relationship with the alderman.”

“That’s how that world works,” Tsaparas said.

Solis has gone underground ever since the Sun-Times reported he secretly recorded conversations for the feds with Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), who has since been charged with attempted extortion. Last week, Solis stepped down as chair of the council’s Zoning Committee.

Solis’ conversation with Tsaparas, as described in the federal affidavit, revolved around a planned Nobu Hotel at Randolph and Peoria. Though the hotel is not complete, Tsaparas said his company has been the general contractor and it is “slated to finish” in July. A Nobu representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The 2016 groundbreaking for the project attracted much attention since the investors included Robert De Niro.

Robert DeNiro, Rahm Emanuel

Actor Robert De Niro, far left, shakes hands with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the ground breaking ceremony for Nobu Hotel Chicago on June 20, 2016. | James Foster/Sun-Times file photo

The recorded conversation allegedly took place August 4, 2015, less than a week after the City Council gave its approval to the hotel. Tsaparas had apparently attended an earlier zoning meeting and told Solis, “it was good to see you in action. I was like, yup, that’s Danny,” according to the affidavit.

Eventually, Solis said, “the reason I’m calling is I’m having my annual Taste of the 25th Ward [fundraiser] in September. I’m hoping you might be able to help out.”

Tsaparas allegedly told him, “I will definitely be there. As always.” Later, he added, “if I’m not there I will, I will, I will send my, ah, my support, but ah, I always try to be there.”

Eventually, Tsaparas steered the conversation to his brother-in-law, according to the document. He said, “Danny, since I got you on the phone, and I don’t want to bother you otherwise, were you able to look at all at that job position for my brother-in-law? Like I told you, super-qualified. He has a Ph.D. He’s worked in the corporate world.”

Solis allegedly said he thought there would be opportunities “as the mayor is naming new commissioners for different departments.”

“I still have uh, your brother-in-law’s resume,” Solis allegedly said. “I, I’ll continue to work on it and, and I’ll let you know.”

In the affidavit, the feds pointed to thousands of dollars in contributions from Tsaparas to Solis and the 25th Ward Regular Democratic Organization over nearly three years, from March 2012 to December 2014.

Tsaparas told the Sun-Times on Wednesday that, “the fundraiser has nothing to do, really, with the position of my brother-in-law. Like, zero.” He added, “there was no follow-up, either. I think my brother-in-law got a job somewhere else.”

But he also explained that “you have to go through the alderman’s office to get an approval for anything, anything you do,” in the real estate world. Meanwhile, the aldermen must raise money for their political campaigns.

And they’re going to try to raise that money from the people they know.

“Elections are coming up,” Tsaparas said, laying out the scenario. “You want to maintain that relationship. You want to support that alderman. You do have that relationship. Therefore, you participate in the fundraiser.”

Still, he said, that doesn’t mean the aldermen always give him what he wants.

“They don’t,” Tsaparas said. “And they’re tough.”

Tsaparas said he’s read the recent barrage of stories alleging City Hall corruption. And he said it’s important to go to the source of that corruption.

He said a system should be built “where transparency is unavoidable.”