Despite ban on lobbyists’ campaign money, Lightfoot took $53K from lobbyist’s companies

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More than a decade ago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an executive order that prohibited him and future mayors from taking any campaign money from lobbyists.

This year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has accepted more than $53,000 in 39 individual campaign contributions from 14 companies owned by Carmen A. Rossi, a registered city lobbyist.

Rossi — who is also a city contractor and restaurateur and nightclub owner and who holds the liquor license for the Lollapalooza music festival — didn’t make any of the contributions to Lightfoot in his own name.

It isn’t clear whether Lightfoot’s taking the contributions from his companies would violate the ban Emanuel imposed on mayors taking political money from lobbyists.

Emanuel, now President Joe Biden’s U.S. ambassador to Japan, was asked by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter whether taking campaign money from businesses owned by a lobbyist would violate the “spirit” of his 2011 ethics order — without being told the question was regarding Rossi, whom Emanuel appointed to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in 2015.

Responding by email, the former mayor said: “I am in Japan. I don’t have records but definitely spirit. As to a literal interpretation. There is an ethics board for interpretation.”

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in August at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tokyo. Emanuel is ambassador to Japan.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in August at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tokyo. Emanuel is ambassador to Japan.

Steven Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, said Emanuel’s executive order doesn’t say whether it covers contributions from companies owned by a lobbyist and that the ethics board never has been asked to rule on that issue.

Emanuel’s executive order says anyone who violates the ban can be barred from lobbying city officials.

Emanuel got $19,300 in campaign contributions from Rossi and his companies between 2014 and 2018, but Rossi didn’t become a registered lobbyist at City Hall until after Lightfoot was elected mayor in April 2019. Two months later, Rossi hosted a fundraiser for the new mayor.

Emanuel’s order banning campaign contributions from lobbyists applies only to the incumbent mayor, not to those seeking the office, Berlin said.

Lightfoot and Rossi didn’t respond to questions about the contributions.

Last year, a patron of one of Rossi’s nightclubs, LiqrBox, in the 800 block of North Orleans Street, was shot to death outside the bar. 

Five days later, a customer reported having been sexually assaulted inside the same bar by an employee. 

LiqrBox, one of Carmen A. Rossi’a nightclubs, in the 800 block of North Orleans Street.

LiqrBox, one of Carmen A. Rossi’a nightclubs, in the 800 block of North Orleans Street.

Also last year, a man was wounded in a shooting outside Rossi’s Joy District bar in the 100 block of West Hubbard Street.

The shootings remain under investigation, according to a Chicago Police Department spokesperson, who said the investigation of the sexual assault case remains open but has been suspended.

In September, the Sun-Times reported that the Chicago Police Department has closed dozens of businesses on the South Side and West Side because of violence linked to them. But that rarely happens downtown and on the North Side, though crime has been rising in those areas the past few years.

“Some of the bar owners are politically active,” the story quoted Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) as saying. “I hope that doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

Last year, Reilly spoke out about violence and noise associated with bars in the 100 block of West Hubbard Street, including Rossi’s Joy District.

In addition to his hospitality businesses, Rossi, 38, is now a city contractor. In February, his company Chicago Parking Solutions was given a Chicago Public Schools contract allowing it to charge people to park cars on 13 school lots during Cubs games and other events.

A city ordinance bans city government contractors and their affiliates from giving more than $1,500 a year to the mayor or other city officials. 

Chicago Parking Solutions gave $2,500 to Lightfoot’s campaign fund on June 30, state campaign-finance records show. That’s part of the $53,000 Lightfoot has gotten from Rossi’s companies this year.

Berlin said candidates for mayor or a Chicago City Council can’t take more than $1,500 in a calendar year from anyone who’s “done business” with the city or its sister agencies, including the Chicago Board of Education, over the past four years. That $1,500 total includes all of a contractor’s affiliated companies — businesses with the same ownership and the same address. Most of Rossi’s companies operate out of his law office in the 100 block of West Hubbard Street.

His companies also have given more than $70,000 this year to other political committees besides Lightfoot’s, including those of some Chicago City Council members.

Council members aren’t covered by the Emanuel-era ban on lobbyist contributions to the mayor. But they still are required to abide by the $1,500 yearly limit on contributions from city contractors, according to Berlin.

Steven Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics.

Steven Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics.

Fran Spielman / Sun-Times

Five current Chicago City Council members and three other candidates now seeking that office have gotten campaign contributions exceeding $1,500 from Rossi this year, records show. The incumbents received a total of $20,735. The others got a total of $20,500.

In November, one of the candidates, Chris Cleary, got $15,000 from Rossi’s companies in three contributions, records show. Cleary, who was a fraternity brother of Rossi, is seeking to unseat Reilly to represent the 42nd ward.

Incumbents who got more than $1,500 from Rossi include:

  • Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) — $6,500.
  • Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) — $4,500.
  • Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) — $4,500.
  • Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) — $3,000.
  • Ald. Timmy Knudsen (43rd) — $2,235.

Challengers who got more than $1,500 in Rossi contributions include Bennett Lawson, $2,500, who’s running in the 44th ward, and Bill Conway, $3,000, who’s in the 34th ward contest.

Lopez said he will ask the Chicago Board of Ethics to decide how much money he can accept from Rossi.

“If there are limits to the law, the remedy is to return the money,” Lopez said. “If the Board of Ethics makes the determination that we are beyond the scope, we will make the appropriate return of the money. And anyone who it relates to should do the same.”

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th).

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th): “If there are limits to the law, the remedy is to return the money.”

Rossi grew up in Frankfort. His father was the suburb’s mayor and is now a Will County judge.

Rossi owns bars in Chicago and the suburbs and co-owns a bar that’s among the most popular with students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Since he registered as a City Hall lobbyist in April 2019, he has worked for developers on residential and commercial projects including the conversion of the old Morton Salt building along the Kennedy Expressway into a concert venue called The Salt Shed.

Rossi also has worked as a lobbyist for The Herbal Care Center, one of the city’s largest cannabis dispensaries, recently sold by the family of another clout-heavy businessman, Perry Mandera.

One of Rossi’s companies has submitted seven applications this year to operate medical marijuana dispensaries in Ohio, but he hasn’t received any licenses.

Lightfoot began getting campaign contributions from Rossi’s companies on March 29, 2019, days before she won a runoff election to succeed Emanuel as mayor. Rossi began lobbying City Hall shortly after Lightfoot’s election.

Rossi hasn’t registered as a lobbyist for companies he owns, though he has lobbied city officials on behalf of his companies, the Sun-Times previously has reported.

After landing the CPS parking-lot contract earlier this year, Rossi sent emails to Kenneth Meyer, Lightfoot’s City Hall business affairs and consumer protection commissioner, asking for his help getting city business licenses that would allow the company to operate the lots.

Kenneth Meyer, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s business affairs and consumer protection commissioner.

Kenneth Meyer, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s business affairs and consumer protection commissioner.

Meyer’s department has regulatory authority over Chicago restaurants and nightclubs, including Rossi’s.

Meyer’s staff and the police department didn’t close Rossi’s LiqrBox in September 2021 after a patron who’d been kicked out of the bar was fatally shot in the street.

Two weeks later, Meyer’s inspectors made a “routine visit” to the LiqrBox and cited it for seven city code violations, including having a state liquor license that had been expired for several months and expired insurance. Rossi corrected the violations, and City Hall dismissed the citations.

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December 2, 2022 at 09:44AM

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