by Mick Dumke
"I hope it's because we do good work," Neal says. "Our firm is 75 years old, and this is our specialty."
He's referring to his firm's expertise in real estate and zoning law. But he and his partners at Neal & Leroy aren't bad at the political part either: they've made millions of dollars working for governmental bodies, then turning around and lobbying some of the same bodies for other high-paying clients.
This is how Chicago works.
I was reminded of this again earlier this week, when I read the Tribune's fine story about the heavy-hitting real estate interests involved in the DePaul stadium and hotel project—the one near McCormick Place that's set to use at least $55 million in taxpayer funds.
Near the bottom of the story—and you should read it to the bottom—Neal was identified as the chief negotiator for the city and McPier, the state authority that runs Navy Pier and McCormick Place.
It was the third time I'd come across Neal's name in as many days.
My friend and colleague Ben Joravsky had just finished his column about the city's economic-development plan for Englewood: helping Norfolk Southern raze dozens of homes to make way for a high-polluting rail yard. Englewood is an impoverished area, with little political power, and city officials have left even community leaders in the dark.
Ben was told that a law firm was representing some of the home owners: a certain Neal & Leroy.
Meanwhile, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn had announced plans to privatize the port of Chicago.
Being both a geek and a reporter, I went to the port district's website for more information. I found none. However, while enjoying the minutes of recent board meetings, I discovered that the district was smart enough to hire good legal counsel: the aforementioned Neal & Leroy.
Anyone who hangs around City Hall is familiar with the firm. In recent years the city has enlisted Neal & Leroy—without a competitive bidding process—to help with acquiring land for the expansion of O'Hare, upgrades at Midway, and a number of TIF deals. According to records, the city has paid the firm more than $10.2 million since 2008.
The firm's work doesn't end there. Even as they represent the city on some issues, Neal and several of his partners are registered lobbyists who go before city officials on behalf of other clients. The roster includes Walmart, whose new stores in Pullman and Bronzeville are being developed with TIF assistance; Rush University Medical Center, another recipient of TIF funds; JPMorgan Chase, which has earned millions of dollars issuing city bonds; and the Chicago Public Schools, whose decision to shutter 50 schools will affect families and property values across the city.
Another client is Interstate Outdoor Advertising, which last year cut a controversial 20-year deal with the city to erect digital billboards on public land along freeways. Interstate's partner in the deal, JCDecaux, is also a former Neal & Leroy client. And the law firm helped draw up the billboard agreement, which was so complicated that even aldermen with years of legal experience admitted they didn't understand it. They approved it anyway.
When he's not lobbying or working with mayors and aldermen, Neal oversees the system that elects them. As chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, Neal even helps determine who qualifies to get on the ballot.
I'd call Neal a busy guy. To his credit, though, he got right back to me after I called.
"Sometimes I get portrayed as some kind of political hack," he says. "There's this implication that I get this work because of my role on the election board, and it's not true."
Neal noted that his grandfather, Earl James Neal, founded the law firm in 1938, when there were few other African-Americans in the field. "He was a redcap—a baggage handler—at the train station on Michigan and Roosevelt, and even after he graduated from law school, he had to work nights as a lawyer, and by day he had to carry bags, because of the opportunities available," Neal says. "He built this practice."
Neal's grandfather went on to become a judge. His father, Earl L. Neal, was frequently tapped by Mayor Richard J. Daley for big projects like construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Neal himself began practicing law in 1981. He says Neal & Leroy is now the oldest continuously operating African-American-owned law firm in the country. "We've worked hard for every single fee we've gotten."
And for fees they won't get. Neal says he's working pro bono for the Englewood residents faced with losing their homes.
He stresses that chairing the election board is also a public service, and that court rulings in two lawsuits have found no conflict of interest between his work as a commissioner and an attorney. Still, he says "the sun is about to set" on his tenure as an election official.
Neal has plenty of fans. Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. says he's never seen an instance when Neal's multiple roles come into conflict. "There are only so many firms that can do the work they do, and even fewer that are minority. So you end up with the same guys."
Brookins's colleague Robert Fioretti says he too thinks highly of Neal. "But that's not the issue. It just seems like the work and wealth is concentrated with a few people, and it doesn't have to be that way."
In June, Fioretti introduced legislation that would prohibit anyone from serving on a public board while also working as a lobbyist or city contractor.
Neal says he hasn't seen the proposal, but he has no plans to step away from his work on public land deals. "There's nothing to hide," he says. "It is what it is."