Sunday, October 16, 2005

Rosemont Mayor again denies Mob ties

Friends of mine: Donald Stephens

Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens, who for years wanted a casino in his town, said Wednesday he now hates the idea but is stuck because he poured $50 million in village funds into the project. During a sometimes combative interview with the Tribune editorial board, Stephens portrayed himself as caught in the middle of a legal and political tug-of-war over the plans to build a casino in the northwest suburb. He also railed against accusations by state and federal authorities--highlighted in regulatory hearings--that he and the village have links to organized crime.
Donald Stephens
"I wish I never heard of this damn casino. As a matter of fact, I don't think much of casinos anyway. They're just boxes with slot machines in them," said Stephens, who in 1999 played a critical role in persuading state lawmakers to clear the way for a Rosemont casino. "Rosemont does not need a casino. That I can tell you. Rosemont can live without a casino."

Stephens blasted comments made last year by Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, who said he has ties to organized crime. He acknowledged that in the days after Madigan made the public comments he complained to Madigan's father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat. "I said, `What's wrong with your daughter? I mean she knows that I'm not associated with [the mob].' He said, `Don, I can't do anything with her,'" Stephens said. "I told him, `Michael, if I'm an associate of crime syndicate hoodlums, so are you because you associate with me.' And he says, `You know what? You're right.' He's been a guest in my home."

A spokesman for Michael Madigan declined to comment Wednesday. (Michael Madigan, a Notre Dame graduate, just held his annual fundraiser at the Sabre Room which is always well attended by many of my former neighbors.)

Lisa Madigan's spokeswoman, Melissa Merz, said the attorney general was unaware of the conversation between the mayor and her father. She said the attorney general "doesn't clear her statements with anyone," including her father.

Stephens' comments come just weeks before former federal appellate judge Abner Mikva is expected to decide whether to revoke the state riverboat license for the Emerald Casino, once proposed for Rosemont, amid allegations that Emerald officials lied to state regulators and some casino investors had ties to the mob.

During the administrative hearing before Mikva, attorneys for the Illinois Gaming Board presented evidence they said raised questions about Stephens and organized crime. The head of the FBI's organized crime division in Chicago testified that a federal informant told them Stephens met with five high-ranking organized crime figures to discuss what control the mob would have over contracts at the casino.

Stephens has vehemently denied the allegations and reiterated those denials Wednesday. "If I've done something, pillory me for it. But don't just say it's `alleged that' or whatever," he said. "The biggest problem that I've got is the allegations, and that's what they are, and the innuendoes and the accusations of mob influence, mob involvement in Rosemont, when there's no truth to it at all."

Should Mikva recommend revoking the license--and the Gaming Board accept that recommendation--Emerald would lose the only asset that it can sell. Emerald would be able to appeal the decision in court.

When asked if he would oppose those efforts, Stephens said he had little choice in the matter. He said the village paid nearly $50 million to build a parking garage for the Emerald Casino and until Emerald pays that money back he must support a casino project for the suburb. "I'd love to get rid of this thing. Can I? No. What can I do ... I've got $50 million of the people of Rosemont's money involved here," he said.

Stephens said he made a mistake by not requiring safeguards in Rosemont's deal with Emerald that would have protected the village's investment.

Gaming Board officials have maintained that Rosemont built the parking deck at its own financial risk because it was done before the board voted on the Emerald project. The board eventually rejected the Emerald plan in 2001, triggering the case now before Mikva.

Emerald was eventually forced into bankruptcy court, where plans were made last year to sell the license to Isle of Capri Casinos, which also planned to build in Rosemont. But the attorney general opposed the sale, partly because of concerns about mob ties.

Stephens said he didn't ask Speaker Madigan to have the attorney general back off. He was simply inquiring why she was making her allegations. "Frankly, I was astounded. I mean this man's a friend of mine. I know his daughter. Wouldn't you say, What's going on?" he said.

Stephens has become increasingly frustrated by the casino saga. And while he long pushed governors and lawmakers to let him have a casino in Rosemont, he said has grown to dislike modern casinos for their strong reliance on computerized video poker or slot machines.

His opinion has changed, in part, because of a newfound friendship with the state's biggest opponent of gambling, Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion.

"You know what these things are? They're vacuum cleaners ... you take the vacuum cleaner and stick the business end in my pocket, you put the switch on and when there's nothing left to suck out of my pocket you turn the switch off," Stephens said. "The house can't lose. That's a casino? No."

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