In April, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stood in the newly remodeled Terminal 5 at O'Hare International Airport, unveiling the sparkling gateway as the newest evidence of Chicago's global status.
The project developer predicted international fliers would generate big sales at the new shops and restaurants, thanks in part to the airport debut of famed local restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and its popular Chicago brands, including Wow Bao, Big Bowl and R.J. Grunts Burger and Fries.
Just a month earlier, Emanuel himself was at a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, records show, for a political fundraiser that earned him more than $26,000 from restaurant founder Richard Melman and his family. The money from the event at Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab was part of more than $59,000 donated to the mayor's re-election fund in March by people and restaurants tied to Lettuce Entertain You.
A campaign spokesman for Emanuel said the mayor's political operation asked for the fundraiser hosted by Lettuce Entertain You, which stands to reap profits from its preferential arrangement at the airport approved by Emanuel's administration.
Both the campaign spokesman and a spokeswoman for the mayor's office said the circumstances did not violate the mayor's executive order banning city contractors from donating to him because Lettuce Entertain You is a licensee under its arrangement with the firm that has the city contract to run concessions at O'Hare.
"We follow the law and the executive order," said Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn, who declined to answer detailed questions about why the mayor sought the fundraiser. "We believe that this situation holds true to both and does not violate the spirit of the executive order either."
But the donations provide a fresh example of how the ethics rules Emanuel signed on his first day in office don't prevent him from raising millions of dollars in political cash from people who are beholden to his administration.
The mayor last year accepted campaign donations tied to a company seeking city business and then returned it after the Tribune raised questions about his ethics pledge. But he has continued to collect checks from hotel and office developers who need his administration's blessing for major projects, and he has taken tens of thousands of dollars from employees of law firms advising City Hall on bond finance deals.
Emanuel's fundraising pace has increased as he prepares his bid for a second term in 2015. This Friday, former President Bill Clinton will be the featured attraction for an Emanuel fundraiser at the Paris Club, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant and lounge on Hubbard Street.
Emanuel's official calendars show he attended at least three events not related to his official duties at Lettuce Entertain You venues in recent months, including a Feb. 4 stop at the Paris Club, Shaw's Crab House on Feb. 6 and the Joe's fundraiser March 3.
Lettuce Entertain You is one of the city's premier restaurant companies, operating dozens of successful businesses and regularly opening new concepts that need city permits, including recent additions such as Beatrix, Three Dots and a Dash and Ramen-San in River North.
The donations from the Melman family were logged by the Chicago for Rahm Emanuel campaign committee a week before the April 4 ceremony at the refurbished terminal at O'Hare. They took the form of five $5,300 donations, the maximum for individuals under state law, from Lettuce Entertain You founder Melman, his wife, Martha, and three grown children who are involved in the business, Jerrod, Robert and Molly.
The Melmans declined to comment for this story.
The $26 million Terminal 5 remodeling was billed as a modernization that would drastically improve service options for passengers moving through the terminal, a 21-gate facility used by 30 airlines. The main tenant in the arrangement is Westfield, a major developer of malls and manager of airport concessions.
The 25-year lease for Westfield, approved in 2011, calls for the city to receive 16 percent of gross receipts at the terminal as rent. The deal gives the Chicago aviation commissioner sway over what other businesses are allowed in the refurbished terminal.
"The selection process, the proposed type of business and all Subtenants are subject to prior written approval by the Commissioner, which approval shall not be unreasonably withheld, conditioned or delayed taking into consideration both the goals of the City and the goals of Tenant," said the lease, signed by current aviation boss Rosemarie Andolino, who recently announced she will leave her post later this year.
Westfield contracted with Areas USA as a concessions operator, which in turn partnered with Lettuce Entertain You, said Eduardo Uribe Mesta, vice president of business development of Areas USA. The food concessions beyond the security checkpoint at the terminal serve ticketed international passengers, a captive audience.
The city was very invested in finding the right mix of brands for the international terminal, Uribe Mesta said. Once conversations with Lettuce Entertain You went well and it became clear Areas USA could partner up with them, "we went to the airport to get their opinion."
Uribe Mesta said Areas USA was not directed to include Lettuce Entertain You, but aviation officials approved of the inclusion.
"Everything we do has to be approved by the (Chicago Department of Aviation), all the brands had to be approved," he said.
Uribe Mesta said his firm and Lettuce Entertain You have worked hand in hand.
"They licensed their name to us, and they've partnered with us. They get a percentage of sales," said Uribe Mesta, who declined to provide figures. "We licensed the names, and they gave us the brands. We worked together designing the menu."
Areas USA built the facilities and hired all of the employees, Uribe Mesta said.
Pete Giangreco, a spokesman for Chicago for Rahm Emanuel, said "campaign staffers" asked Lettuce Entertain You for the fundraiser, but he declined to answer detailed questions about the circumstances.
"The mayor does not accept contributions from tenants or subtenants at O'Hare, and since Lettuce Entertain You is neither of those, their contributions are entirely appropriate," Giangreco wrote in an email. "The city does not dictate licensing agreements any more than it dictates what kind of ketchup restaurants at O'Hare serve, and any attempt to conflate the two is entirely misleading."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun