TAX­PAY­ERS COV­ERED MIL­LIONS IN PARK GYM COSTS JESSE WHITE PROMISED TO PAY FOR

Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday) - - TOP NEWS - BY CHUCK NEUBAUER AND SANDY BERGO

When Illi­nois Sec­re­tary of State Jesse White un­veiled plans nine years ago for a North Side field­house that would bear his name, he promised that his pri­vate char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion and its donors would pick up the bulk of the mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar tab.

But that’s not how things turned out. In­stead, records show, tax­pay­ers paid all but a small frac­tion of the cost.

White, who will be sworn in Mon­day for a record sixth con­sec­u­tive term as sec­re­tary of state, pledged $10 mil­lion to build the ath­letic fa­cil­ity in part­ner­ship with the Chicago Park Dis­trict on part of the for­mer CabriniGreen pub­lic hous­ing pro­ject in White’s 27th Ward po­lit­i­cal power base.

His foun­da­tion ac­tu­ally ended up pay­ing only about $650,000. The field­house, orig­i­nally pegged at $15 mil­lion, cost about $12.2 mil­lion. Chicago and Illi­nois tax­pay­ers ended up cov­er­ing $11.5 mil­lion of that.

The 29,000-square-foot fa­cil­ity at 410 W. Chicago opened in 2014 and, in ad­di­tion to hous­ing a park dis­trict gym­na­sium, pro­vides a home for White’s famed Jesse White Tum­blers and head­quar­ters for his Jesse White Foun­da­tion, which pays the park dis­trict just $1 in an­nual rent. The park dis­trict cov­ers all util­ity, cus­to­dial and main­te­nance costs, records show.

White’s groups also get ex­clu­sive use of many of the fa­cil­i­ties for sev­eral hours af­ter school and on Sun­day morn­ings. And his foun­da­tion con­trols most of the sec­ond floor.

So why didn’t White, a Demo­crat who’s one of Illi­nois’ most pop­u­lar politi­cians, have to put up the money he promised? He was hav­ing trou­ble rais­ing the pri­vate fund­ing he promised for the cen­ter. So elected of­fi­cials, Democrats and Repub­li­cans alike, came to his res­cue with tax money.

In late 2010, then-Mayor Richard M. Da­ley got the Chicago City Coun­cil’s ap­proval to un­der­write the pro­ject with $5 mil­lion in so­called tax in­cre­ment fi­nanc­ing di­verted from prop­erty tax col­lec­tions. Within months, the TIF fund­ing was dou­bled to $10 mil­lion with help from a push by Ald. Wal­ter Bur­nett (27th), a po­lit­i­cal pro­tégé of White who’s also a vol­un­teer Tum­blers coach.

Repub­li­can Gov. Bruce Rauner, on his first day in of­fice in 2015, had frozen all dis­cre­tionary state grant spend­ing. But Rauner made an ex­cep­tion and green­lighted a $1.5 mil­lion grant for the Chicago Park Dis­trict. The grant agree­ment didn’t specif­i­cally men­tion White’s foun­da­tion. But records show the park dis­trict used the money to bail out the foun­da­tion for a con­struc­tion loan it owed on the cen­ter.

In ad­di­tion to Da­ley, Bur­nett and Rauner, the politi­cians who helped en­sure tax­pay­ers would pay for most of the White cen­ter in­cluded Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illi­nois House Speaker Michael Madi­gan, for­mer Demo­cratic Gov. Pat Quinn, Ald. Ed­ward M. Burke (14th) and two Demo­cratic state law­mak­ers whose dis­tricts in­clude the field­house — Sen. Pa­tri­cia Van Pelt and Rep. Arthur Turner Jr.

Nei­ther White nor parks of­fi­cials re­sponded specif­i­cally to ques­tions about the cen­ter’s fi­nanc­ing. In writ­ten state­ments, they praised the pro­ject, with White call­ing it a “gold-stan­dard model of a pub­lic-pri­vate ini­tia­tive” and a parks spokesman say­ing it of­fers “un­prece­dented recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties to chil­dren and fam­i­lies” in the neigh­bor­hood.

White, 84, might be as well known for the Jesse White Tum­blers pro­gram he started six decades ago as for po­lit­i­cal suc­cess. The sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice’s web­site says more than 17,500 stu­dents have been in­volved with the gym­nas­tics teams that per­form in Chicago and around the world.

The com­mu­nity cen­ter was ap­proved by the park dis­trict board in Fe­bru­ary 2010. A staff out­line pre­pared for the board and signed by top parks of­fi­cials said White’s foun­da­tion “has pledged $10 mil­lion to­ward the $15 mil­lion de­vel­op­ment bud­get.”

The field­house opened in 2014. At a cer­e­mony, Bur­nett re­called how he got a prom­ise from Emanuel “on Day One” that the new mayor would con­tinue to sup­port the pro­ject his pre­de­ces­sor had backed. Af­ter that, Bur­nett said, “Ev­ery­thing was pushed through for the tum­bling team with­out any hes­i­ta­tion.”

White had en­dorsed Emanuel in the crowded field for mayor in 2011.

Emanuel spokesper­son Jennifer Martinez says the mayor con­sid­ered the field­house an “im­por­tant recre­ational as­set.”

“This was ab­so­lutely the right de­ci­sion since to­day it serves as a tremen­dous com­mu­nity as­set,” Martinez says.

In a writ­ten state­ment, Bur­nett says: “The Jesse White Field House and Com­mu­nity Cen­ter is a pub­lic fa­cil­ity that was paid for with pub­lic and pri­vate funds. I ap­plaud Jesse White, city and state lead­ers, and pri­vate, con­cerned cit­i­zens for bring­ing this fab­u­lous fa­cil­ity to the Near North Side.”

At the 2014 rib­bon-cut­ting, White cited peo­ple he said had been in­stru­men­tal in mov­ing the pro­ject along, in­clud­ing Burke, who now faces a cor­rup­tion charge but at the time was the long­time chair­man of the coun­cil’s finance com­mit­tee, with a life-or­death grip on city spend­ing. White said then that Burke was “help­ful in com­ing for­ward with the dol­lars that we needed.”

Burke re­signed as finance com­mit­tee chair­man ear­lier this month af­ter be­ing charged by fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors with shak­ing down a Burger King fran­chise owner in his ward in an ef­fort to get le­gal work for the al­der­man’s law firm.

White also praised Jill Tak­iff Hirsh, then a board mem­ber of White’s foun­da­tion and chair­man of the First Bank of High­land Park, which pro­vided a $1.5 mil­lion life­line when the foun­da­tion was short of cash to com­plete the pro­ject in 2014.

Pa­per­work for a bank line of credit to White’s foun­da­tion was com­pleted on May 27, 2014, the day Madi­gan in­tro­duced a bud­get bill in the House that in­cluded an ap­pro­pri­a­tion for un­spec­i­fied cap­i­tal projects spon­sored by law­mak­ers. One $1.5 mil­lion grant carved out of that ended up go­ing to the park dis­trict and was used to re­pay the bank loan to White’s foun­da­tion.

State records list Van Pelt and Turner as spon­sors of the grant. Van Pelt first won elec­tion in 2012 af­ter White en­dorsed her in the Demo­cratic pri­mary over an in­cum­bent.

Madi­gan’s bud­get bill also gave White an op­por­tu­nity to do a fa­vor for the speaker. With a bud­get cri­sis loom­ing, it in­su­lated $35 mil­lion ear­marked for school con­struc­tion projects, in­clud­ing one in Madi­gan’s South­west Side house dis­trict, from fu­ture cuts.

The money was put into the bud­get for White’s of­fice. That’s how it es­caped the freeze on state grants that Rauner im­posed the fol­low­ing year.

Madi­gan spokesman Steve Brown says the parks grant that ul­ti­mately went to the White cen­ter was un­re­lated to the school­fund­ing is­sue, an at­tempt to ad­dress “se­ri­ous over­crowd­ing.”

Ma­neu­ver­ing over fi­nanc­ing for the White field­house con­tin­ued even af­ter its opened in the fall of 2014. Quinn, whose re-elec­tion cam­paign got $75,000 from White, lost to Rauner that Novem­ber. Be­fore leav­ing of­fice, Quinn’s staff rushed to com­plete pa­per­work for the grant.

“THIS IS A PRI­OR­ITY PRO­JECT PER THE GOV. PLEASE CALL AND SEND SUR­VEY TO­DAY,” read an email in all cap­i­tal let­ters writ­ten to Quinn staffers on Dec. 29, 2014, by Mary Fea­gans, a lob­by­ist for the state Depart­ment of Com­merce and Eco­nomic Op­por­tu­nity, which han­dled the grant.

A Quinn spokesman says the for­mer gov­er­nor didn’t get in­volved in de­tails of in­di­vid­ual grants.

The money wasn’t dis­pensed be­fore Rauner took of­fice and im­posed the grant freeze. But the White foun­da­tion needed the money to pay back Hirsh’s bank. In Fe­bru­ary 2015, Fea­gans and Rauner bud­get of­fi­cials be­gan get­ting in­quiries about the sta­tus of the grant, state emails show. Within a month, the hold on the grant was lifted.

“Please con­sider this email ap­proval to move for­ward with the $1.5 mil­lion grant to the Chicago Park Dis­trict for the Jesse White Com­mu­nity Cen­ter as these costs have been in­curred for the pro­ject,” a Rauner bud­get of­fi­cial wrote Fea­gans.

Of dozens of grants sus­pended by Rauner, the White cen­ter grant was one of only two the new gov­er­nor agreed to let through.

White’s foun­da­tion re­ceived an­other fi­nan­cial boost re­lated to the cen­ter in 2015. The state grant had cut the foun­da­tion’s to­tal cost to $1.3 mil­lion. But records show that it got about half of that amount from an es­crow fund that held un­spent money for the pro­ject. That dropped the fi­nal cost to White’s foun­da­tion to about $650,000.

SUN-TIMES FILE PHOTO

Illi­nois Sec­re­tary of State Jesse White’s char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion pledged $10 mil­lion for the Chicago Park Dis­trict’s Jesse White Park and Com­mu­nity Cen­ter. It paid just $650,000 af­ter politi­cians bailed him out with city and state tax­payer money, a BGA in­ves­ti­ga­tion found.

ASH­LEE REZIN/SUN-TIMES

The Chicago Park Dis­trict’s Jesse White Park and Com­mu­nity Cen­ter at 410 W. Chicago.

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