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Former tollway chairman's undisclosed land deal raises flags
By Joseph Ryan and Sheila Ahern | Daily Herald Staff

John Mitola

 

Mark Black | Staff Photographer

The Wheeling Station project is slated to be built at NorthGate Parkway and Dundee Road in Wheeling, led by former tollway board Chairman John Mitola and a parter who also was appointed to a state post by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

 

Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/15/2009 12:01 AM

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While heading the Illinois tollway, John Mitola led a Wheeling real estate venture with another Rod Blagojevich appointee - a former business partner of convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko, but didn't disclose that deal on state ethics reports, according to state records.

Watchdog groups say that at the very least, it's an ethical lapse that creates a perception of potential conflicts of interest for a political appointee who led the tollway for more than six years.

"This stuff is at best unethical," said Andy Shaw, director of the Better Government Association.

In addition, Mitola's real estate project, Wheeling Station LLC, is listed as having the same address as Rossi Contractors in Northlake, a company that has done work for the city of Chicago and the airlines at O'Hare International Airport, according to its Web site.

The firm's site also references work for the tollway, but it does not detail that work. Rossi executives didn't return a call seeking comment Friday.

Mitola, of Chicago, was appointed chairman of the tollway board in 2003 by Gov. Rod Blagojevich along with Jack Hartman as executive director. Hartman was in charge of O'Hare construction as deputy aviation director at Chicago before coming to the tollway.

Mitola, who this week resigned from his position on the toll board, could not be reached for comment Friday, despite repeated attempts.

Mitola and his Wheeling Station business partner, former state purchasing and contracting CEO Michael Rumman under ousted Gov. Blagojevich, have received permission from Wheeling officials to build condominiums and commercial space in three buildings at the northwest corner of Dundee Road and Northgate Parkway.

The connections in the real estate deal between Rumman, Rossi and Mitola, watchdog groups say, make strict adherence to the state ethics reporting requirement that much more important, in order to make any potential conflicts public.

"I'm very disturbed in hearing about all these connections. There is not a legitimate excuse not to list that," says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

As for Rossi's tollway work, agency spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said the last record of the firm serving as a main contractor for the agency dates to 1998. McGinnis said the agency searched internal databases of main contractors and didn't find Rossi beyond that one job working on a North Avenue interchange.

She said she is not sure whether Rossi has been hired to work for a subcontractor on any of the tollway's expansion projects in recent years. "There have been no direct payments or direct contracts," McGinnis said of Rossi.

Willfully filing an economic interest statement that contains "false or incomplete" information is a misdemeanor offense under state law. The statement requires the disclosure of any "ownership interest" of more than $5,000 in any entity doing business in the state.

In his annual ethics filings, Mitola has disclosed stock investments in companies such as McDonald's, Exelon and Microsoft as well as his interest in a small business consulting firm and financial advisory group. But there is no mention over the years of his interest in Wheeling Station LLC, which records show was created in November 2007 and remains active.

By leaving Wheeling Station off his annual disclosure statements, Mitola effectively left the public in the dark about the tollway chairman's financial interest in a particular suburb, his relationship with Rumman and any relationship with a major construction company, Shaw said.

"I'm not quite sure where John Mitola was for the last five years," Shaw said of a period during which scores of politicians and businessmen have been indicted and convicted of pay-to-play deals.

The Wheeling Station development was first proposed in 2006 and won approval last summer. No construction has started due to the economy, said Wheeling Village Manager Mark Rooney. If built, Mitola and Rumman stand to gain from funds provided in a special downtown taxing district.

Rooney says he didn't see a conflict for Mitola or Rumman to do a land deal in his suburb. "We knew what their roles were," he said. "But they can invest in property just like every other American."

Although temporary building permits have expired, Rooney said he last talked to Mitola about the project about five weeks ago.

Mitola resigned the tollway Thursday as Gov. Pat Quinn attempted to revamp the agency with a new chairman and new board appointees. In a letter to Quinn, Mitola said he needed more time with his family.

Mitola and Hartman were appointed to the tollway when Blagojevich came into office with the promise of reform. Blagojevich is now facing federal corruption charges, but has declared his innocence.

Blagojevich also appointed Rumman to head the state's powerful Central Management Services department at the behest of Rezko. He resigned in 2005 after a scathing state audit raised questions about multimillion dollar contracts under his watch.