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Questions Abound About New Illinois Riverboat License PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 30 March 2004 18:00
Last fall, Governor Rod Blagojevich took a brief but nasty beating in the Chicago media. Thick smoke from a super-hot fire killed nine people in a Loop office high-rise. One of the building’s managers, Elzie Higginbottom, was a Blagojevich campaign contributor, and when the city and the county dragged their collective investigatory feet, the media demanded that the governor step in. When he refused, he was mercilessly slammed by the press for lacking political courage. He eventually changed his mind, but the damage was done.

That very same Elzie Higginbottom is also the chairperson of the Illinois Gaming Board. And when Higginbottom announced recently that suburban Rosemont would host the state’s newest riverboat casino, the political world exploded around him once again.

Blagojevich, most likely mindful of the Higginbottom-related thrashing he took last year, immediately demanded a full investigation.

The gaming board’s decision was controversial partly because it had ignored its own staff’s recommendation to award the license to Des Plaines – a decision it never explained.

Waukegan, the third finalist, has been struggling economically for years, but it’s trying to bounce back, and a new boat would have helped anchor and pay for the re-development.

But the real source of the anger was Rosemont itself.

Right or wrong, Rosemont is often found in news stories along with the phrase “mob-related.”

The guy who has run Rosemont literally since its inception is Mayor Don Stephens. The FBI has twice tried to nail Stephens, without success, which proves to some that he hires good lawyers, and proves to his friends that he’s getting a bad rap. “If the feds can convict Martha Stewart for almost nothing, why couldn’t they nab Stephens?” they ask.

Mayor Stephens also happens to be a long-time Rod Blagojevich supporter. The Republican Stephens backed Blagojevich for the Illinois House, the U.S. Congress, and governor.

Stephens’ closest allies in the General Assembly have been deeply involved with helping Governor Blagojevich pass his legislative agenda.

One of the governor’s closest pals, Tony Rezko, had, until recently, an agreement with Stephens to build a hotel near the casino site.

Last year, another close Blagojevich friend, Chris Kelly, tried to influence some of the gaming board’s decisions at the governor’s behest.

Then there are the inconvenient facts that the gaming board is appointed by the governor and chair Elzie Higginbottom gave $65,000 to Blagojevich’s campaign.

The governor’s political fund has also taken a few bucks from a couple of guys linked to an alleged mob-related attempt to infiltrate the ownership of the last riverboat casino that was slated for Rosemont.

All of that combined could lead to some serious conspiracy mongering. As they say in the business, Blagojevich needed to “get out in front of the story.”

But rather than ask Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to investigate, Blagojevich appointed his own person. Madigan would be the logical choice because she is the only person who has full investigatory powers over the gaming board.

Blagojevich’s appointee, Eric Holder, is a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who, coincidentally, endorsed Lisa Madigan’s opponent in the 2002 Democratic primary campaign. One of Blagojevich’s top media advisors reportedly recommended Holder.

The Blagojevich crowd has been paranoid from the beginning that Madigan wants to run against their guy in 2006, or at least use her office to undercut him. An investigator they could control would be a better option. And appointing someone himself would allow the governor to once again hoist the glittering banner of reform and distract attention from his own Rosemont connections.

Plus, since Holder will have few real investigatory powers, he’s an extremely safe option.

Madigan also received assistance from the Stephens crew in the 2002 campaign, mainly through her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan. But, unlike Blagojevich, Attorney General Madigan has deliberately kept Rosemont at arm’s length since she took office. She enraged the Rosemontians when she immediately questioned the gaming board’s sanity and then, a few days later, issued a blistering critique that tied Mayor Stephens directly to organized crime.

Give the governor points for acting quickly, but subtract most of them for putting style before substance.

And add another problem. Madigan’s people are at least as paranoid as Blagojevich’s crowd. Appointing an investigator who backed her opponent two years ago and paying him $565 an hour was seen as a deliberate slap in the face. It’s never wise to antagonize someone who possesses broad subpoena powers, and a father who controls a legislative chamber.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).
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