News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Welcome to U.S. Cellular Field, home of the sweetheart deal

A new lawsuit shows how taxpayers footed the bill so the White Sox can make millions.



With all the hullabaloo over the Cubs and their Wrigley Field renovation, it's easy to overlook the fact that there's another ballpark in Chicago with its own political issues.

In case any of us had forgotten, a lawsuit filed last week in federal court is a good reminder that U.S. Cellular Field is still around, still serving as the home of the White Sox, and still being underwritten by taxpayers.

On April 15 Perri Irmer sued former governor James Thompson and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, alleging that they essentially colluded to have her fired from her job as CEO of the Illinois Sports Facility Authority. That's the state board that oversees operations at the Cell.

Irmer's lawsuit is filled with all sorts of juicy allegations about how Reinsdorf and Thompson, a member of the ISFA board, used their clout with governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn to thwart Irmer's efforts to make the White Sox pay more in rent. It declares that under Thompson's lead, the ISFA board acted "as nothing more than a cash cow puppet for Jerry Reinsdorf."

And you thought I was hard on these guys.

Thompson didn't return calls for comment, but a spokesman for Reinsdorf noted how little he thought of the allegations: "This lawsuit is totally without merit. Other than that, we cannot comment any further on pending litigation."

At this point I must mention that my man, the great Mayor Harold Washington, had a hand in this stadium deal.

Back in the mid-1980s, Reinsdorf threatened to move the team to Tampa Bay unless the city and state built him a new stadium. Determined not to go down in history as the mayor who lost the White Sox, Washington teamed up with then governor Thompson to jam a stadium deal through the General Assembly.

And what a deal it was.

You, the taxpayer, got to pay to build the ballpark. And they, the White Sox, got to collect almost all the proceeds from the games, right down to hot dog sales.

Even I could make money with this kind of arrangement. By contrast, the Cubs get no subsidy and have to pay property taxes like the rest of us schlubs. Who can blame them for looking on with a mixture of envy and awe?

The ISFA was created to oversee the deal, and in 2004 Irmer was named CEO. A lawyer, architect, and former deputy commissioner of buildings in Mayor Daley's administration, Irmer was soon at odds with Reinsdorf as she tried to make the Sox kick in for use of the park, according to her suit.

"In 2008, with Perri Irmer's strong support, ISFA persuaded the White Sox to agree for the first time to begin paying rent for the use of Cellular Field, in the token amount of $1.2 million per year," according to the suit. "This agreement included other concessions by the White Sox, and the deal was reached over the White Sox's initial objections."

In addition, Irmer proposed to develop a restaurant and shops across 35th Street from the ballpark that could bring in millions of dollars per year to "benefit Illinois taxpayers," according to her suit.

For her efforts, "Reinsdorf had lobbied former Governor Blagojevich, or members of his staff, to persuade them that Irmer's contract should not be renewed," according to the suit.

In early December 2008, a top Blagojevich aide, John Harris, "enlisted a private citizen to inform Perri Irmer that it was a 'done deal' that she was being removed from ISFA for the stated reason that Reinsdorf was angry about the 'rent demands,'" the suit alleges. It says that the private citizen—who isn't named—then informed Irmer "that if she left ISFA quietly, she would be offered a job in the private sector."

It didn't happen. Harris and Blagojevich were indicted on other, unrelated corruption charges and the board extended Irmer's contract.

In 2010 Reinsdorf negotiated a deal with IFSA in which taxpayers paid about $6.9 million to build a restaurant for which the White Sox get to keep all the proceeds—which may be an even sweeter deal than the original one to build the ballpark.

When the Tribune asked why he'd agree to these terms, Thompson replied, "We said to Jerry, 'Jerry, can we have part of the profits?' And he said, no. We said, OK. I've known Jerry for 52 years. He's tough. He's tough."

If only the Detroit Tigers were so easy to defeat.

On April 25, 2011, Irmer arrived to work and "discovered that she had been locked out of her office and denied access to her computer and personal property," her suit alleges. "She saw that [Thompson and an aide] were waiting for her and the former governor summoned her into a conference room."

Thompson gave her "the choice of resigning or waiting to be fired, and he added that if she refused to resign and they 'had to' fire her, that her reputation would be ruined," according to the suit.

She was fired two days later, the suit says.

"In no uncertain terms, Perri Irmer was terminated as the direct and proximate result of Jerry Reinsdorf's exercise of undue influence over former Governor Thompson," says the suit. "The defendants sought to silence Perri Irmer and to stifle her efforts to protect Illinois taxpayers from Reinsdorf's greed."

Irmer's lawyers, Carmen Caruso and Linda Chatman, said she would not comment for this article.

Regardless of whether she wins, I think we can agree that the Sox got one heck of a good deal.

And what did the public get? Well, we got the White Sox to stay in town, though, let's face it, most folks aren't exactly thrilled about them. Attendance, at least, has been declining over the last few years. Hell, the team couldn't even muster big crowds in the heat of last year's division race, in which, true to form, they wilted down the stretch.

Of course, the Sox apparently don't need huge crowds to make money, thanks to the generous lease arrangements and a lucrative TV contract. (For more details on Sox finances, I suggest you check out Chicago Sport and Society, a website run by Chris Lamberti, a historian and blogger.)

This is what my libertarian friends say happens when you allow the government to so blatantly intervene in a free market on behalf of a private concern.

You know, we have a curious double standard with free markets in Chicago. When it comes to schools with falling enrollment, Mayor Emanuel and his allies in the civic community exclaim that we can't afford one more nickel. But when it comes to propping up a profitable baseball team with falling attendance—rock on!

In short, no money for the kids. But more money to sign Adam Dunn, who, last I looked, was hitting a whopping .108. Even Chicago's lowest-scoring schools are doing better than that.

I know Mayor Washington felt compelled to do what he did. But, in retrospect, we might have been better off letting the Sox move to Tampa Bay.

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