THE MELL-HULL AFFAIR
Powerful alderman quietly got paid thousands of dollars to support millionaire’s failed bid for the U.S. Senate
It was widely known that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s father-in-law, Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), was supporting wealthy businessman Blair Hull in the U.S. Senate race Barack Obama ended up winning in 2004.
Few people, however, knew Mell was getting paid to work on Hull’s campaign. So what makes this curious now? Hull’s campaign fund didn’t pay Mell directly. Instead, Mell was paid by a political consulting company owned by Fred Lebed, the right-hand man of embattled Sen. Roland Burris. Lebed’s company was working for Hull, and Mell was a “subcontractor,” Lebed said.
There appears to be nothing illegal about that arrangement. But — apparently in the wake of Blagojevich’s Dec. 9 arrest — federal authorities have asked questions about it, according to John Ruff, a Lebed and Burris associate who recently broke ties with both men because of the furor over Burris’ Senate appointment by Blagojevich.
Ruff said that, in conversations with Lebed in late January, Lebed told him he’d been asked to provide documents to a federal grand jury to explain payments his company made to Mell.
“I had been trying to get a hold of [Lebed] for like a week,” Ruff said. “He called to explain what he’d been doing. He said he wasn’t in any trouble — not to worry about him — he just needed to provide some information” to authorities.
In another conversation, Lebed told Ruff his firm “had hired Mell and made, like, over $100,000 in payments to him, and the grand jury needed documentation and an explana- tion as to what [Mell] was doing,’’ Ruff said.
Asked by Sun-Times reporters whether he has turned over such paperwork to authorities, Lebed declined to comment. He referred questions to a criminal-defense attorney, former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar, who did not return messages.
But Lebed said there was nothing improper about the money Mell was paid.
“He brought a lot of credibility to the Blair Hull campaign,’’ Lebed said. “He was working for me, at the direction of me. He was not an employee but a subcontractor to me. There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. There wasn’t anything inappropriate. The campaign knew he was working with me. Dick would set up meetings. Back then, that was about it.’’
Lebed wouldn’t say how much Mell was paid.
Mell, too, declined to say what he was paid. But he acknowledged working with Lebed on Hull’s Senate race. Mell said he was unaware of any federal probe asking about his pay.
“I have no knowledge of that or any desire to comment on something that’s five years old, all right?’’ Mell said.
Mell disclosed the payments from Lebed’s company, The Prairie Group Consulting Inc., on ethics forms he filed with the city. Those reports reveal that Mell was paid at least $2,500 a year for political consulting work for Lebed’s firm in 2003 and 2004. The city does not require Mell to disclose exactly how much he was paid.
Federal election records show Prairie Group was paid $120,000 by Hull’s campaign and that Lebed got another $13,102 on top of that.
Mell “paid all appropriate taxes and filed what was required of him by disclosing on his ethics statements and his tax returns,” his lawyer, Dennis Berkson, said.
Asked through e-mail about the payments to Mell and whether he has been contacted by federal authorities, Hull replied through an assistant, “No comment.’’
Hull’s former campaign manager, Mike Henry, said he was unaware of Mell having been paid to work for the Hull campaign.
“Fred was working for us,” Henry said. “I don’t know of any relationships he had with Dick Mell. I met Dick Mell a couple of times, but that was about it.’’
Henry was not aware of any federal probe involving Hull’s campaign. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago declined to comment.
Hull has been a six-figure political contributor to Blagojevich, who “encouraged Hull to run and is covertly aiding his candidacy,” the late Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal reported in 2003. Blagojevich didn’t formally endorse anyone in the Senate race.
Also, Lebed or Hull might have had dealings with Blagojevich in October 2008. The ex-governor’s daily log for Oct. 17 includes an entry: “Blair Hull in Chicago October 28-31. Requesting follow-up mtg. Contact: . . . Fred Lebed.”
Ald. Dick Mell acknowledges working on Blair Hull’s Senate race. Fred Lebed