THE MELL-HULL AF­FAIR

Pow­er­ful al­der­man qui­etly got paid thou­sands of dol­lars to sup­port mil­lion­aire’s failed bid for the U.S. Se­nate

Chicago Sun-Times - - Metro The Watchdogs -

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.”

AL POD­GORSKI~SUN-TIMES

Ald. Dick Mell ac­knowl­edges work­ing on Blair Hull’s Se­nate race. Fred Lebed

Blair Hull

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