November 5th, 2019 12:27 PM
Embattled video gambling magnate Rick Heidner was promised $90,000 in taxpayer money, future property tax breaks and liquor licenses for tenants in exchange for taking over and developing this Ogden Avenue strip mall in Lyons. (John Chase/BGA)
By Casey Toner
Better Government Association
The nearly two dozen businesses and individuals named in the wide-ranging federal search warrant served in September on the southwest suburb of Lyons have contributed more than $200,000 to political campaigns tied to Mayor Christopher Getty during the past decade.
During the same period, records show, many of those businesses -- which include a towing contractor, a local brewery, a jail food vendor and a quarry operator that neighbors village hall -- received contracts, permits, liquor licenses, tax breaks and other promises from the government Getty runs.
But perhaps the most notable figure on the list is Rick Heidner, an embattled video gambling magnate who has contracted with Lyons to fix up a long-vacant strip mall on Ogden Avenue, the village's main drag.
Heidner and his video gambling company, Gold Rush Amusements Inc., made headlines last month when his plans to develop a combination horse track and casino in Tinley Park were dashed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker following news reports of his business dealings with a banking family tied to the mob, as well as a convicted bookie.
Getty and the village board he controls promised the strip mall's original developer $90,000 in taxpayer money, a benefit that went to Heidner when he took over. He also promised Heidner future property tax breaks, lucrative liquor licenses at the site and village support for video gambling there in exchange for taking over and developing the project near village hall.
On Oct. 1, five days after federal agents executed their search warrant, the village issued a fire alarm permit for one of the buildings in the strip mall that identified Heidner's property management firm as the owner.
In late September, federal agents raided and seized records from Lyons Village Hall and Getty's private insurance business. Agents also raided the village hall in the neighboring suburb of McCook and also visited Summit's village hall.
The sprawling federal corruption investigation is ongoing. No one in Lyons has been charged and Lyons officials declined to comment for this story. Getty did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
Heidner's name appeared on federal records that were issued for the raids in Lyons and McCook, as well as an earlier raid on the Cicero and Springfield offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, whose district includes the two suburbs, as well as part of Riverside.
According to documents, federal agents left their raid of Lyons Village Hall with "assorted loan papers and notes" regarding Heidner.
"I haven't done anything. This is insanity," Heidner said in a telephone interview with the Better Government Association. "I have not been accused of anything. I don't know what to do. I just don't know what to do.
"I was asked to take the project over because it was totally a failed project," said Heidner, who added that federal authorities told his employees he is "not a focus" of the investigation.
Heidner lamented the Lyons strip mall deal, saying it "has not been a great deal for me. I did everyone a favor."
Still, the deal stands to be lucrative for Heidner.
The terms of a 2017 agreement with Lyons stipulates the village will pay all property taxes at the site above $50,000 per year. The property taxes on Heidner's strip mall last year totaled $67,763, meaning the village's portion was $17,763. The village has not yet provided records of payments and tax savings requested by the BGA.
Once the building fills with tenants, the taxes will likely rise.
The village also promised to allow liquor licenses and video gambling, which would likely increase revenue for Heidner's slot machine empire. The contract stipulates Heidner's plans for the 6,000-square-foot building included a restaurant and video gambling cafe, although Heidner now says there will be no cafe.
Lyons officials spent $140,000 to terminate a previous contract with another developer for the strip mall before approving the plan that allowed Heidner's firm to take over.
As of last week, the mall remained empty, but a Mexican restaurant was advertised in a store window for one of the spots. A developer of the restaurant, Joseph A. Hurt, has long ties to Getty and his name is also included in the federal subpoena, records show.
Hurt is a donor to Getty and is also listed as the chairman of a political action committee that funded a Getty-backed slate of Lyons school board candidates in April. Hurt did not return telephone messages.
Recent election records show Heidner and his firms, including Gold Rush, have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians statewide, including at least $4,550 to funds controlled by Getty and $19,350 to McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski.
Yet only a small part of Gold Rush's gambling empire operates in Lyons and McCook, about 40 machines at eight locations, including a strip club and a bar, both in McCook, also listed in a federal subpoena. Gold Rush's business includes more than 2,300 slot machines in nearly 500 locations statewide.
Heidner's plans to build a south suburban "racino" evaporated after the Chicago Tribune reported last month that Heidner borrowed money to build gas stations and convenience stores from a bank with a board chaired by Rocco Suspenzi, who once hid his interest with a member of organized crime in a failed bid for a Rosemont casino. The story also detailed Heidner's real estate business with Dominic Buttita, who ran an illegal bookmaking operation and skimmed money from his South Elgin strip club in the mid 2000s.
Heidner has downplayed both relationships, saying he disclosed the relationships to state regulators.
Lyons village officials are also moving forward with plans tied to others named in the federal subpoenas.
Among them is the petroleum-distribution firm Black Dog Corp., which has more than $14 million in contracts to sell food and gasoline to Cook County and has contributed to numerous politicians, including Getty.
Just as Lyons officials were releasing unredacted copies of the warrant and subpoena it received from federal law enforcement, Getty announced during an Oct. 15 village board meeting that the suburb planned to lease a strip of land to Black Dog Foods LLC for a decade at $1,000 per month. The first six months will be rent free, Getty said.
Lyons bought the fenced off strip of land in 2016, and the village's deputy director of public works made a $3,000 commission on the sale, the BGA previously reported.
An attorney for Black Dog and its CEO, Amit Gauri, declined to comment.
Black Dog shares an office next to village hall with quarry operator Reliable Materials, another company that caught the interest of federal law enforcement. Reliable is one of Lyons' largest vendors and Getty's single largest donor. The firm and its executives have contributed more than $100,000 to Getty-tied campaign funds.
Federal agents also seized records related to Reliable and its nearby quarry, where construction debris is dumped by contractors. Reliable was listed on the search warrants at the offices of both Getty and Sandoval. Agents also searched Reliable's corporate headquarters in Bartlett, news reports show.
Lyons has paid the firm nearly $1 million in recent years to prepare the quarry site for future commercial development.
Federal authorities also seized records related to the contractors who built Getty's personal home. In May, a BGA/Fox 32 investigation revealed a questionable deal in which the village used taxpayer money to purchase the blighted property, and then sold it at a loss to the developer who built Getty's home there.
The BGA/Fox32 investigation also raised questions about Getty's interest in an Oak Brook resort, whose partners also include a former Reliable executive named William Haworth. Haworth, Getty and the hotel owner Jim Nagle, are all listed as managers on state filings for the Drake Oak Brook Resort.
Federal authorities also seized records related to the hotel from Lyons village hall, records show.
"He's not a manager and technically he's not even a shareholder," Nagle said of Getty, who hosts fundraisers at the hotel. "He has the option to become a very, very, very minimal shareholder after he pays a certain amount, of which he has paid nothing now."
This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.