When City Hall and other government agencies need property in Chicago, they turn to Langdon Neal, one of the city’s most politically connected lawyers.
Running the small law firm his grandfather founded more than 75 years ago, Neal has made a fortune helping City Hall and other governments condemn land for schools, police stations, McCormick Place, O’Hare Airport expansion.
Since 1999, Neal’s firm has been paid a total of more than $99 million by 10 government agencies, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The precise tab is certainly higher, but some of those agencies don’t keep records going back that far.
Government agencies count on Neal. And he counts on them. The firm had $10 million in total revenue in 2012, records show — and 63 percent of that came from those government agencies.
Neal & Leroy also represents clients who do business with the same government agencies the firm represents. Neal routinely writes letters asking government officials to waive such conflicts of interest so he can represent clients doing business with his government clients — or so he can represent one government agency that’s working on a deal with another government client.
Over the past dozen years, records show Neal has filed 22 such requests for waivers from City Hall and other government clients. All were granted.
In 2008, for instance, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s law department gave Neal a waiver so he could represent MB Real Estate Services, which was battling City Hall over fees due under a multimillion-dollar contract to manage property owned by the city.
In another case, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority — which owns McCormick Place and Navy Pier — gave Neal a waiver last year so he could help the agency buy a vacant lot for $5,473,750 from a former client of his, Drapac Group LLC, the Sun-Times reported in August. Drapac had bought the lot for $1,020,000 a year earlier, when Neal was the company’s registered City Hall lobbyist regarding “potential development of the Drapac parcel,” according to the waiver.
Also last year, Neal got a waiver from the CTA so he could help the Chicago Board of Education and the Public Building Commission of Chicago obtain an easement from the CTA for a fire lane below the Brown Line tracks on behalf of Walter Payton College Prep. All three agencies were his clients.
In July, the Board of Ed. gave Neal another waiver, this one after another client, the Washington Park Development Group LLC, bought the shuttered Overton School and two vacant school properties for $469,000 — less than half its appraised value, according to the Board of Ed.’s appraisal. Neal told the board he didn’t work on the developer’s real estate deals.
Neal didn’t respond to interview requests.
The 58-year-old lawyer lives in Lincoln Park with his wife, Jeanette Sublett, who is among the 17 attorneys working for Neal & Leroy.
In addition to his law practice, Neal is also chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, which ruled in favor of Rahm Emanuel when he first ran for mayor four years ago and opponents were arguing he wasn’t eligible to be on the ballot because he’d been living in Washington when he served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.
Neal has announced he’s resigning from the three-member election commission, a position he’s held since 1997. But because of the death of another election commissioner, he has remained in the job, which pays him $91,223 a year.
Since Emanuel announced plans in 2013 to build a new hotel and event center for McCormick Place, Neal’s work for the authority known as McPier soared. He billed the agency $946,541 in 2013, $4.7 million last year and $2.9 million for the first seven months of 2015, records show.
But that’s not just for legal fees. His payments have skyrocketed because McPier decided to have him hire and pay at least a dozen subcontractors — including real estate appraisers, environmental engineers and the construction company, Bulley & Andrews, that was paid $5.2 million to move the historic Harriet Rees House to make way for the event center — through him, according to McPier records. Of the $7.7 million Neal has billed McPier since 2014, about 77 percent has gone to pay those subcontractors.
“Somebody has to coordinate that stuff,” says James Reilly, McPier’s recently retired McPier chief executive officer. “And by having the lawyer pick the subcontractors, it’s all subject to the attorney-client privilege” if anyone sues the authority.
“It’s purely a pass-through,” Reilly says. “Almost in every case — except for the house mover, where there were only two firms that could do it — he got several proposals. We have the invoices, so we know how much he paid out.”
By having Neal’s law firm hire those subcontractors, the authority bypassed its normal bidding process — which calls for competitive bidding, with contracts subject to the approval of the authority’s nine board members, led by chairman Jack Greenberg.
McPier has refused to release copies of Neal’s bills since January 2014, saying there were too many and that it would take too much staff time to redact parts of the bills that couldn’t be made public.
The authority did release four months of those records, showing bills from businesses including Apex Companies, an environmental consultant whose contract has been taken over by the McPier board.
Neal’s firm is widely considered Chicago’s leading expert on the powers of eminent domain — the law that governmental bodies use to seize property for public improvements and compensate the landowners.
Beyond its expertise, Neal & Leroy has a long political pedigree. Founded in 1938 by Earl J. Neal, who went on to become a Cook County judge, it’s one of the nation’s oldest minority-owned law firms, according to Neal’s website.
The judge’s son, Earl Neal, joined the firm in 1955, serving as an adviser to six Chicago mayors. He helped acquire property for the United Center, U.S. Cellular Field, the Dan Ryan Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago. When he died 10 years ago, Mayor Daley spoke at his funeral.
Langdon Neal took over the firm, which he renamed Neal & Leroy and kept focused on making money by helping obtain property for public agencies.