Click to enlarge“A special deal for a special friend”
Ald. Tillman criticized over land deal with Higginbottom
by Daniel J. Yovich

A senior county official and members of two government watchdog groups are questioning the path by which 3rd Ward Ald. Dorothy Tillman came to own the building where her ward office is located.

Cook County real estate records show Tillman bought the two-story building for $50,000 on Dec. 28, 2004, which is just steps from the Harold Washington Cultural Center (HWCC). Records indicate the property, located at 4645 S. King Dr., was purchased from an associate of prominent developer and political fund-raiser Elzie Higginbottom.

City and county records show the property has been deeded and sold at least four times since 1990 in what county Deputy Recorder of Deeds Askia Abdullah said was a “confusing series of transactions” that calls into question whether Tillman is legally entitled to own the building.

Cook County Recorder of Deeds records show the property was owned by Deborah Howell of Debbie’s Beauty School until Oct. 26, 1992, when it was deeded to Johnson Products Inc. Records show that on Feb. 19, 1997 the property was quit claim deeded to Alfred Davis and S&R Construction, which held the property until Feb. 21, 2002. County tax records show the property’s taxes were paid during this time by East Lake 2000 Management, a subsidiary of one of Higginbottom’s real estate companies that has the same mailing address that county tax records show for Davis.

“There is this quick claim deed that appears from out of nowhere,” said Abdullah. “At the same time, we never see it being properly deeded out of trust. I can’t explain this any better, other than saying that it looks like someone is playing games here.”

Abdullah could also not explain why the Tillman property is listed on county tax rolls as being located at 4645 S. South Park Ave., an address that has not existed since South Park Avenue was renamed King Drive decades ago. Abdullah said that since 1990, no other property at the intersection of 47th Street and King Drive has been recorded as having a location on the former South Park Avenue.

“I can think of no reason that someone would record the property at an address that has not existed for many years,” Abdullah said.

County property tax records show the property occupies 3,835 square feet of land and that it is valued at $254,182. On May 1, Tillman obtained a $99,600 mortgage from ShoreBank at nearly twice the price records show Tillman paid for the property.

County property records show that Higginbottom’s East Lake Management and Development Corp. owns the building immediately south of Tillman’s. Both are located at the corner of 47th Street and King Drive; the intersection has been the primary focus of Tillman’s economic development in her ward. The intersection is the location of the $19.5 million HWCC, which is staffed with Tillman’s family, friends and political supporters.

Brian Imus, the director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, said the appearance that Tillman bought her property at a significant discount from a political ally and city contractor should raise the scrutiny of state and federal investigators.

“Any time you have the appearance of a special deal for a special friend you have to question the circumstances of the transaction,” Imus said. “I would think the alderman would want this answered as well. Clearly there needs to be some oversight in matters like this.”

The Spoken Word CafČ, owned by Jimalita Tillman, the alderman’s daughter, is located two doors south of Tillman’s ward office in the building owned by Higginbottom. Since 1999, Higginbottom, his companies and its officers have donated at least $4,500 to Tillman’s campaigns, according to state election records, and more than $100,000 to city, county and state candidates.

Higginbottom did not return messages left at his office seeking a comment. Alfred Davis could not be reached for a comment.

Higginbottom was treasurer of Tillman’s failed congressional campaign in 1996. U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-7) was elected to that spot.

At the same time, Higginbottom was the general contractor for the construction of the HWCC, which began in 1993 as the Lou Rawls Cultural Center and after a series of delays and construction shutdowns was completed in August 2004. The executive director of the non-profit organization that manages the cultural center is Jimalita Tillman and the Spoken Word is one of four caterers that provide food for HWCC events.

By city standards, an unprecedented 90 percent of funding to build the HWCC was paid for by taxpayer money. “This is why it’s so important for elected officials like Ald. Tillman to disclose their ties to their business partners and not leave constituents wondering what happened and why it happened,” Imus said.

Jimalita Tillman has declined the Lakefront Outlook’s attempts to interview her about her duties at HWCC, the possible conflicts of interest involving her dual roles and the propriety of renting space from the HWCC’s general contractor at the same time she was listed on Tobacco Road’s tax returns as the project’s chief fundraiser.

The price of real estate

Real estate agents said the properties surrounding the HWCC are among Bronzeville’s most expensive as the neighborhood’s real estate boom shows no sign of slowing. The intersection is one of the busiest in the neighborhood. It is also the site of a Jamaican marketplace, a comedy club and a restaurant, all located in buildings that records show are owned by Higginbottom.

Tillman has devoted the majority of her discretionary infrastructure improvement money in recent years to improvements at or near the intersection.

City records show $1.4 million of the $2.4 million of Tillman’s Aldermanic Menu program funds in 2004 and 2005 for her ward’s immediate infrastructure improvements was spent for projects at or near the intersection. More than $800,000 of Tillman’s infrastructure improvement money went unspent for infrastructure improvements in her ward during those years.

The average cost per square foot for vacant Bronzeville land has increased 221 percent since Tillman bought the building, according to Lisa Thompson, who researches the neighborhood’s real estate for Applied Real Estate Analysis, a market research firm.

In fact, Tillman paid just under $15 per square foot for her property at the time Thompson’s analysis showed the average cost for property without inhabitable structures was averaging $24.64 per square foot. Thompson’s analysis shows the 2006 average price for vacant land in Bronzeville is about $79 per square foot.

Jay E. Stewart, the Better Government Association’s executive director, questions how Tillman was able to buy what he called some of Bronzeville’s prime commercial space at what appears to be a significant discount. Stewart said land deals involving campaign contributors and the politicians they back can become problematic for both parties, noting the recent political fallout from U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s Hyde Park land deal with campaign donor Tony Rezko.

“I think the question that needs to be asked here is how she was able to buy this property at what would appear to be significantly below fair market value,” Stewart said. “Anytime a politician is buying something at a steep discount, it’s going to raise some eyebrows. It’s going to cause people to wonder how they seemed to get such a good deal.”

“An awful lot of coincidences”

That Higginbottom appears to be in the mix of those involved in the property deal might be cause for additional scrutiny by government watchdog groups and perhaps state or federal authorities, said Stewart. Higginbottom has been referred to as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief fund-raiser in the African-American community, and campaign finance records shows he is a regular donor to candidates from both political parties in local, county and state elections.

“The fact that Mr. Higginbottom is in this apparent chain of transactions adds up to an awful lot of coincidences,” Stewart said.

City finance records show Tillman is the only city alderman who owns the building where a ward office is located. And while she is only one of three aldermen who is not reimbursed by the city for leasing ward office space, the Illinois State Board of Elections Web site shows she was paid $2,000 in February 2005 by Citizens for Dorothy Tillman for office rent at her ward office. The Web site lists that Tillman was also paid $22,000 by Citizens for Dorothy Tillman for office rent at her home address between January and December 2005.

A campaign disclosure specialist with the Illinois State Board of Elections told the Lakefront Outlook that the expenditures listed for Tillman are allowed according to Article 9 of the Disclosure of Campaign Contributions and Expenditures and Rules and Regulations

The city ethics ordinance prohibits aldermen from leasing property they own to the city. The ordinance further prohibits the use of aldermanic expense allowance funds for “expenses related to any business, profession or occupation in which the alderman, any relative of the alderman or any member of the alderman’s staff may be engaged.” Tillman has not replied to an Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking an accounting of how she spends her aldermanic expense allowance. Tillman and the non-profit group Tobacco Road Inc. co-sponsor at least twice each year events involving her family members.

City ordinance also requires aldermen to disclose financial dealings they have with those who do business with the city. Tillman has also not replied to an Illinois FOIA request to review her disclosure statements. Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and the chairman of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s political science department, said it was unwise, and perhaps a violation of the city ethics ordinance, for Tillman to become involved in a real estate transaction involving Davis, a vendor to the city, and Higginbottom, whose companies regularly appear before the City Council zoning committee.

“The solution to these ethical dilemmas is very simple: Disclose any potential conflict of interest and cast no vote on any issue in which you have a material interest,” Simpson said. “You can simply abstain and make your interest in the legislation or administrative policy a matter of public record. Why is this so difficult for public officials in Chicago? Because old habits die hard in Chicago politics, because there is still that quid pro quo mindset that ‘if you take care of me, I’ll take care of you.”

Kalari Girtley and Erin Meyer contributed to this story.

Clout-heavy developer is City Hall’s rainmaker in black community
by Kalari Girtley

When some political figures want to raise funds in Chicago’s African-American community, they look to Elzie Higginbottom for guidance.

Higginbottom, CEO of East Lake Management and Development Corp, is the son of a coin laundry businessman. In 1983, he started East Lake Management, which went on to become the largest minority-owned real estate company in Illinois.

After a few years in business, Higginbottom became a millionaire. He scored more than $32 million in contracts with the Chicago Housing Authority between January 2000 and December 2006. In 2005, Crain’s Chicago Business named Higginbottom on its list of “Who’s Who” in Real Estate.

He contributes regularly to political campaigns and has been recognized as one of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s biggest fund-raisers.

East Lake Management took a big hit in 2003 when the Cook County administration building at 69 W. Washington Blvd. it managed caught fire killing six people. Prior to the incident, the building had been sighted for fire code violations, but the city had allowed East Lake Management to continue to operate it. Previously, a housing complex his company managed caught fire in 1996 killing four tenants.

As chairman of the Illinois Gaming Committee in 2002, Higginbottom oversaw the decision to select the state’s newest casino location. The committee picked Rosemont despite being advised otherwise because Attorney General Lisa Madigan claimed Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens’ was connected with organized crime. It was reported that the controversy surrounding the decision led to the attorney general sending letters to the committee in an attempt for them to reconsider their decision and provide valid reasons for their choice. Gov. Rod Blagojevich called for a special investigation of the committee’s decision. In 2004, Higginbottom stepped down from the Gaming Committee.