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Other People's Money

The Truth Behind a $30 Million Campaign Trick, and How You're Still Paying for It



Judy Baar Topinka had always been a favorite with the voters and the media. Her frankness and quotability helped her move up from state senator to state treasurer in the 1994 Republican sweep, and "Governor Topinka" didn't seem out of the question someday. But on April 26 she suddenly found herself alone in a cross fire of words.

"Taxpayers Stuck With $30 Million Hotel Tab," screamed the Sun-Times front page that morning. The story was harsh: In 1982 powerful political fund-raisers had borrowed state money to build downstate luxury hotels that turned out to be turkeys; instead of paying off their mortgages, the borrowers had wound up owing the state $40 million. Topinka, who'd simply inherited the bad debt, had made news by agreeing to settle it for just $10 million. The media trashed her settlement plan, claiming she was doing it as a favor to well-connected Republicans.

But the Sun-Times's dramatic headline was misleading. Recovering the full value of a loan that's gone bad is almost always hopeless. Sophisticated critics knew Topinka hadn't cost the state anything like $30 million, though they did wonder if she'd cost it five or ten million.

Had she gotten the best deal for the taxpayers in a tough situation? Her immediate predecessor, populist Democrat Patrick Quinn, didn't think so. Neither did conservative Republican Peter Fitzgerald of Palatine, who sat next to her when she was a senator. Attorney General Jim Ryan, her running mate in November, added injury to insult. He suspended the deal and asked a financial team from the University of Illinois to look it over. They reviewed appraisal documents and advised him that she should have gotten at least $13 million, not $10 million. Ryan called the deal off.

Topinka battled back. She pointed out that Quinn had settled a similar hotel loan at a loss in 1992 when he was treasurer. She called the U. of I. professors' report "armchair speculation from Monday-morning quarterbacks" and asked sarcastically that they refer any $13 million bidders to her. She still insists $10 million was the most she could get.

The spectacle of Republicans fighting over another Republican's proposed settlement made news. But the media missed the point that the damage had been done years before. As one insider put it, "The stories were all about how the taxpayers are getting screwed. Well, I say to the taxpayers: "You've already been screwed. You might as well light up a cigarette. It's over."'

It started 13 years ago, in the summer of 1982. Republican governor Jim Thompson needed a gimmick. He was in a fierce campaign for reelection, running against Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson III, a former U.S. senator with impeccable reform credentials and the state's second most revered political name. To make matters worse for Thompson, a nationwide recession was hitting Illinois harder than the rest of the country. Unemployment was over 12 percent, and interest rates were approaching 20. Downstaters were threatening to send Democrats to Congress; even Ronald Reagan looked, momentarily, like a one-term president. Stevenson had just hurt himself politically by coming out against the death penalty, but even so Thompson seemed to be falling behind.

Thompson's gimmick was nothing new. It was as old as politics: use your office to get money for people who can then give back enough to keep you there. But it was executed brilliantly.

On August 11, 1982, Thompson and Democratic state treasurer Jerome Cosentino announced the formation of the Illinois Insured Mortgage Pilot Program, which (1) was bipartisan, (2) was perfectly legal, and (3) had a fashionable public-policy cover story. Thompson and Cosentino complained that investors were irrationally deserting Illinois for the sun belt. "Dollars earned in the state of Illinois are placed in the hands of banks, insurance companies and pension funds and continue to be used to create jobs and strengthen the economic base elsewhere in the country," they declared. "As a result, many prudent and worthy development projects [here] are left without adequate available financing resources." Under IIMPP taxpayers were to help out these developers by making the sort of loans the private sector wouldn't.

Until 1982 real estate loans that weren't fully insured had been considered too risky for the public's money. But the General Assembly had just passed legislation authorizing the treasurer to make such investments. Working through American National Bank, Thompson and Cosentino promptly invested $120 million in 18 hotels, shopping centers, and office buildings--in time for the developers to start construction and create hundreds of jobs before election day.

The deals were sweet--for the borrowers. The state was taking a chance by putting money into real estate, which can fluctuate wildly in value, and into loans that weren't fully insured against loss. Normally investors who assume this kind of extra risk get a higher rate of return. Not the state. It took a lower interest rate, just 12 percent at a time when inflation-plagued banks were charging their best customers 15 percent. Perhaps this extra discount was Thompson and Cosentino's way of trying to further blunt the recession, but the list of projects that got IIMPP loans doesn't suggest that the neediest parts of the state were targeted.

If the economics were shaky, the politics weren't. The IIMPP offered a place at the trough to both developers (who got cheap money) and workers (who got jobs)--which struck at a weakness in the Stevenson camp: the gap between the good-government candidate and nominal Democrats who just wanted to know "Where's mine?" The more Stevenson criticized the program, the more he risked alienating his own base. Thompson's strategy served him well. That fall, by the smallest margin in state history, he won his third term.

The loans weren't intended to be long-term, and most of them weren't. Five years later, in July 1987, the state had over half of its money back. But $50 million--over a third of the original amount--was still outstanding, most of it in three big loans for hotels that had quickly got into deep trouble:

$11.75 million to a partnership headed by Thompson backer Fletcher Farrar for a Ramada Inn in downstate Mount Vernon,

$13.4 million to a partnership led by B.C. Gitcho and bipartisan fund-raiser Gary Fears for a Holiday Inn in Collinsville (near Saint Louis), and

$15.5 million to a partnership headed by longtime Republican fund-raiser and insider William Cellini for the Ramada Renaissance, a luxury hotel six blocks from the state capitol in downtown Springfield. (The taxpayers wound up sinking even more into this hotel, because the city of Springfield took a $3.1 million grant from HUD and loaned it to the venture--a loan that's still outstanding. This summer the city's budget director told the Illinois Times that payments on it haven't even kept up with the accruing interest charges.)

By 1988 another election had passed. IIMPP was six years old. Thompson was still governor, and Cosentino was once again treasurer. And the three hotels they'd called into being were behind on their payments. At the time the whole hotel industry was in a slump. Moreover the borrowers were fighting for market share with nearby hotels, whose owners weren't pleased to be competing with state-financed businesses.

The fathers of IIMPP had a choice--a choice that they and their successors would face again and again in the next few years: They could act, or they could postpone the day of reckoning. They could foreclose on the loans, take title to the hotels, and sell them, probably at a loss. Or they could renegotiate ("restructure") the loans, let the borrowers keep the hotels going, and hope for better times.

Foreclosure certainly would not have endeared Thompson and Cosentino to their backer-borrowers. The Springfield Ramada Renaissance, for instance, has 85 limited partners who own shares of the hotel. If the state were to foreclose, those partners would lose their initial investments, and any of the hotel's losses they'd written off in previous years would suddenly become taxable income.

Foreclosing could be costly to the state as well: the hotels might not sell for enough to cover the initial debt plus accumulated interest. Worse, foreclosure might galvanize the media, since it would be an acknowledgment that a mistake had been made and it would give that mistake a clear dollar value.

On the other hand, keeping the loans going would put off trouble, maybe forever. It would give the media sharks nothing to bite on. It would imply that the state was optimistic. Of course if the hotels kept on doing badly and missing payments, the state might well lose even more money. But that would be later.

Thompson and Cosentino took the second route. They gave the borrowers an extra six years (until 1995) to pay the loans off, and they dropped the interest rate from 12 percent to 2 percent, a rate that was supposed to rise to 14 percent by 1995. John Camper and Daniel Egler wrote in the Tribune at the time that even usually vigilant lawmakers were "reluctant to criticize a program that bears the fingerprints of both a top Republican and a top Democrat." Cosentino appeared before the Legislative Audit Commission to reassure the few dissidents. He said that this restructuring of the hotel loans was the borrowers' last chance. He promised that if they fell behind again the state would foreclose for sure.

So far this is the kind of tacky story--rich friends of officeholders get cheap money on easy terms, and tough decisions are put off--that makes people vote for Ross Perot or Lyndon LaRouche or nobody at all. It's ugly, but it's also routine. What happened two years later, in 1990, was much uglier and a lot less routine. This time Thompson and Cosentino didn't just offer their friends a markdown. This time they arguably gave away the store.

Both men were retiring from politics in 1990. Thompson, the state's longest-serving governor, was leaving voluntarily and with acclaim. Cosentino was leaving involuntarily and under an ethical cloud unrelated to IIMPP. But the loans were not being retired; even though they had a new easy-payment plan, the three hotels were once again behind. Together the Springfield and Collinsville partnerships, the two biggest borrowers, now owed the state $34 million (compared to $28.9 million in '87) and the two hotels that were supposedly backing that debt were appraised at only $19 million.

Again Thompson and Cosentino faced a choice: Foreclose now and take the heat? Or "restructure" the loans again and cross their fingers? The departing governor and treasurer decided not to foreclose, even though only two years earlier Cosentino had pledged they would. So once more they put off the day of reckoning, knowing that when it came someone else would be on the spot. And the way they put it off guaranteed that, barring a miraculous recovery by the hotels, the day of reckoning would be bleak indeed.

Under the second restructuring:

The loans would be due in 2010, not 1995.

The interest rates would stay at 6 percent instead of rising to 14 in 1995, as the first restructuring had provided.

The borrowers would have to make their payments only quarterly, not monthly.

Their payments would be applied to the principal before the interest--a major concession, as anyone who's paying off a home or car loan knows.

Most amazing, until January 1999 the borrowers would have to pay only what they could afford. That's right. After they'd paid their management fees, their hotel employees, their suppliers, their attorneys, their property taxes, their sales taxes, their sewer and water bills, their insurance premiums, even their second-mortgage holders, they were to pay the state whatever "cash flow available" was left.

This provision would quickly prove onerous to the state. Before it had been easy to tell when the hotels were keeping up: the state treasurer could simply ask if they'd sent a big enough check. Now the treasurer couldn't even tell how big the check was supposed to be without a thorough accounting of each hotel's expenses.

After 1999 the borrowers would once again have to pay a definite amount: enough to keep the debt below $18 million in Springfield and $17.7 million in Collinsville. (If they go on making minimal payments for the next four years, this means they'll have to cough up a onetime lump-sum payment that totals a little over $10 million before January 1, 1999, then start making substantially higher quarterly payments.) Otherwise the state can foreclose.

But until January 1, 1999, Thompson and Cosentino's second restructuring makes foreclosure almost impossible. Technically it would even allow the borrowers to not pay a cent until 1999. (Since 1990 Springfield, for instance, has paid the state an average of $62,000 a quarter, though quarterly payments averaging $350,000 would be needed to pay off the loan.)

Thompson's chief counsel at the time, William Ghesquiere, has called the second restructuring "the best of two bad options." In 1992 he told David Gosnell of the Belleville News-Democrat that the plan in 1990 had been to hang on and wait for the hotels to become profitable rather than foreclose and sell them at a loss. But there's more than one way to wait. The first restructuring had given the borrowers more time to pay and a lower interest rate. The 1990 agreement gave them even more time and even lower rates and much more: for a full decade it let the borrowers put other bills (including attorneys' fees) ahead of their mortgage obligation, and it virtually erased the state's power to foreclose for nonpayment until 1999.

"In my several years of experience I have never seen any loan work-out document that was so one-sided in favor of a Borrower," wrote state senator Peter Fitzgerald, who in private life is an attorney specializing in complex commercial-loan documentation for commercial banks, in a July 1995 letter urging Attorney General Jim Ryan to investigate the second restructuring for evidence of fraud or official misconduct. "These terms are highly unusual and irregular. They are so irregular as to be unbelievable. For example, I have never before seen or even heard of a secured lender unilaterally subordinating itself to most of the Borrower's other creditors, secured and unsecured alike, as the State did here by stipulating that payments would only be due out of "Cash Flow Available.'

"In my opinion, the Second Restructuring is a release of indebtedness masquerading as a restructuring of indebtedness: in layman's terms, it is a gift, not a loan."

What would happen to a bank officer who offered terms like these to a delinquent borrower? Fitzgerald says without hesitation, "He'd go right to jail." So why weren't Thompson and Cosentino put away? Because there's a government regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, watching over the assets of private financial institutions, but no regulator watching over public assets--except the voters.

The hotel loans had always been like a noose, pretied and ready to slip around the neck of every state treasurer. And the tighter the noose got, the harder it became to exchange the loan documents for a reasonable amount of money.

In 1982 the noose seemed large and easy to ignore. Even as the loans went bad in the later 80s it was still loose enough to allow some maneuvering. If the borrowers didn't pay, the treasurer had two ways of slipping out: either sell the loans (probably at a loss) to a private party and put the money in a sound investment, or foreclose on the loans for nonpayment, sell the hotels (probably at a loss), and put the money in a sound investment.

But the second restructuring had tightened the noose. Now the treasurer had almost no way to foreclose and sell the hotels. And if he or she tried to sell the loans, what sane investor would buy them given that the terms were now so lopsided in the borrowers' favor? Cosentino's successors--Democrat Patrick Quinn in 1991 and Republican Judy Baar Topinka in 1995--struggled in that noose. Most of their efforts served only to draw it tighter than ever.

When Quinn, a longtime populist reformer, succeeded Cosentino he promptly asked Attorney General Roland Burris to strike down the second restructuring, arguing that the state had done all the giving and got nothing in return. But in November 1991 Burris upheld Thompson and Cosentino's deal. He said that the state had got one thing in return for all its concessions--better guarantees in case the borrowers failed to pay up--and that made it a legal agreement.

Burris didn't say the second restructuring had been a good deal for the state--the law didn't require that. He wrote, "I do not believe that a court reviewing the matter would find the consideration to be so inadequate as to shock the conscience." (Burris's successor, Jim Ryan, has so far found "no legal theory" to reverse Burris's opinion.)

But whether the deal really gave the state a better guarantee in case of nonpayment remains debatable. That portion of the second restructuring document is written in nearly impenetrable language. State senator Peter Fitzgerald thinks it actually reduces the state's guarantee instead of increasing it. David Vaught, the attorney who handled the problem loans under Quinn, says that the second restructuring's section on guarantees is "very confusing. I'm not sure you could get two attorneys to agree on what it means." He finds that fact significant in itself. "In my opinion, you draft these things in clear language if you want to enforce them. If you don't want to enforce them, it doesn't matter."

Having failed to overturn the second restructuring on legal grounds, Quinn did his best to use what few teeth it had against the borrowers. At the end of Quinn's first year in office Vaught and his colleagues were astonished to find that the Mount Vernon hotel had paid the state $600,000 in 1991--twice as much as Springfield and Collinsville combined. Vaught says, "We thought, What's this? Mount Vernon is a small city at the intersection of two interstates. It's in a weaker market, with lower room rates and lower occupancy rates than the other two--but it was paying more than them. How come? That question was never really answered to our satisfaction."

But it was a crucial question, because under the second restructuring the hotel borrowers owe the state nothing if they have no cash flow available. The higher their expenses, the less cash flow available. Were the hotels padding expenses to reduce their payments?

To get an answer, Quinn tried to use the terms of the second restructuring, which require the borrower to give the state treasurer an independent CPA's audited financial statement for the hotel every year or risk being foreclosed. Among other things, the statement must show the cash flow available, "computed by said accountants." Says Vaught, "We wanted to be sure that the cash-flow audit was computed by the independent accountants--not computed by the borrowers and just audited by the CPAs. It's our only safeguard to make sure we get paid."

None of the 1991 financial statements that Springfield and Collinsville proffered assured Quinn that the hotels' expenses had been scrutinized independently enough. As negotiations on this point dragged on fruitlessly into 1992, the borrowers grew more and more fearful that the treasurer might foreclose. So they made a preemptive strike. In May 1992 they asked for an injunction in Cook County Circuit Court to stop Quinn from declaring them in default and foreclosing on the hotels. The injunction was denied. They appealed. In 1994 they lost again in the appellate court, which pointed out that the state treasurer had "sovereign immunity" and couldn't be sued over a contract interpretation like this. (Not until October 1995, just before the state supreme court was about to consider the case, would the borrowers agree to drop it and open their books.)

But even though they were losing their court battles, the borrowers succeeded in holding off the state, because when the circuit court first ruled against them it forbade the state from taking "any action which might be injurious to the operations of the hotel complexes." Such an order is normally intended to ensure fair play, by maintaining the status quo while the appellate courts ponder their decision. However, this order went well beyond that. A knowledgeable attorney calls it "one of the best deals I've ever seen for a litigant who doesn't have a case."

In effect, that order further tightened the noose around the state treasurer's neck by suspending what few rights Thompson and Cosentino had neglected to sign away in the second restructuring. Now Quinn couldn't foreclose and sell off the hotels for any reason whatsoever. And what was the Loop law firm that pulled off this coup? Winston & Strawn, which lists among its partners former governor Jim Thompson.

Quinn had tried and failed to get the second restructuring declared illegal. He had tried and failed to use it to rein in the borrowers. Now he couldn't even foreclose and sell the hotels. His last option was to unload the bad loans themselves--to get them off the state's books either by selling them to a third party or by reaching a settlement directly with the borrowers. A direct settlement would have been preferable, since it would have cut out the middleman and given the state a better deal, and that's what Quinn tried first.

He scored one out of three, but only because a nasty dispute over the Mount Vernon partnership's letters of credit led to negotiations with Mount Vernon borrower Fletcher Farrar and his hotel manager. "The Mount Vernon folks were more direct than [Springfield's William] Cellini," says David Vaught. "They came out with their books. We asked to see this and this. They produced more things. That was the basis for negotiation." In December 1992 Quinn settled for 60 cents on the dollar, and the Mount Vernon loans were taken over by a private bank. Meanwhile, with little controversy, the state legislature repealed the 1982 legislation that had authorized the Illinois Insured Mortgage Pilot Program investments in the first place.

But Quinn ran into trouble with the Springfield and Collinsville borrowers. According to Vaught, they didn't seem to be interested in negotiating. Finally in 1994 Quinn gave up and hired a broker to discreetly market the two loans to third parties, not to the borrowers themselves. The broker approached four likely buyers. Two wouldn't touch it. The other two eventually offered bids of between $8 million and $8.5 million (on obligations that by now were theoretically close to $40 million), but no deal was consummated.

At about the same time, Quinn commissioned an appraisal of the loans and of the hotels by the Real Estate Analysis Corporation (REAC), a well-credentialed Chicago firm whose client list includes Sears, the Regional Transportation Authority, and the city's aviation department. REAC appraised the two loans at about $7.8 million, and the two hotels at $11.7 million.

These numbers, generated during Quinn's last months in office, later proved flimsy. The two loan bids were serious, but they were private, so they weren't a good gauge of what an open, advertised public auction of the loans would have brought. Moreover the bidders were bidding blind, as they never saw the hotels' books. And the REAC appraisal turned out to contain a key error that made the Springfield hotel appear about $3 million less valuable than it was.

Judy Baar Topinka rejected Quinn's tactics but took his numbers as gospel. She campaigned for treasurer in 1994 on a promise to get the hotel loans off the state's books, where they were yielding far less than the 15 to 16 percent investors normally expect from such risky ventures.

Once in office, she was in a hurry to fulfill her pledge. She simply split the difference between $8 million (the private bids for the two loans) and $11.7 million (REAC's 1994 appraisal of the two hotels) and came up with $10 million--not an unreasonable procedure if the numbers had been reliable. The plan, she explained afterward to the state senate appropriations committee, was to present a $10 million proposal to the borrowers as soon as possible. "The opportunity to do so came when the borrowers asked to meet us to persuade us that the ongoing litigation [the request for an injunction against Quinn] should be settled. Instead, we surprised them with a settlement proposal that they buy the investments for $10 million." The borrowers quickly agreed.

Because they agreed so quickly and because she was only getting 25 cents on the dollar, you have to ask: did they buy her off? Not likely. William Cellini, general partner of the Springfield hotel venture, has been a Republican insider going back to the administration of Governor Richard Ogilvie. But Topinka has never been chummy with the Republican establishment. Attorney General Jim Ryan has closer ties to Thompson and Cellini--yet she's the one who wound up being publicly accused of doing them an unwarranted favor and Ryan the one who was lauded for squelching it.

But whatever the politics were, Topinka's negotiations with the Springfield and Collinsville borrowers do not sound like they were tough. For one thing, they were brief. David Vaught, who negotiated with the borrowers under Quinn, says, "There was a whole lot more process in the Mount Vernon case than in [Topinka's] deal as I understand it. If you don't have a good process you're guaranteed to make mistakes." For another, her deal would have cost each investor less than $100,000. Yet in a letter dated December 27, 1994, Cellini had told the treasurer-elect, "The major problem with any adverse action against the Hotel [such as a foreclosure] is the tremendous negative tax impact upon each investor. Each 1% investor could face a half million dollar adverse tax consequence--in addition to losing their entire investment in the hotel." It's not clear exactly what he meant--$500,000 in taxes? or just the taxes on $500,000 (which would have come to something less than $200,000)?--but either is a lot more than $100,000. State senator Peter Fitzgerald argues that Cellini's letter was a powerful bargaining tool Topinka could have used to get more than $10 million, but for some reason didn't.

"What has bothered me most about this whole thing is that the hotel owners accepted her first offer," reflected reporter Rich Miller in his July 12 Capitol Fax newsletter. "Say you decide to sell your own house without an experienced realtor and you ask $100,000, and a couple of days later a buyer comes along and snaps it up right away without attempting to bargain. Most people would then belatedly realize that their price probably wasn't high enough, and they'd kick themselves royally and reach for the Tums. When Topinka said, "I want $10 million to settle these loans,' and the owners said yes, it looks a lot like she lowballed the taxpayers."

Topinka is clearly right on two points. First, the predicament wasn't her fault. If Thompson had contrived to get reelected in 1982 without IIMPP, or if he and Cosentino had taken their medicine in 1988 or 1990 instead of shoving it off on posterity, she wouldn't have had to deal with the mess. Most of the flak belongs by right to them. Without quite calling the IIMPP and the second restructuring trash, she told the Sun-Times's Tim Novak, "I'm the garbage man trying to clean up."

Second, Topinka didn't throw away $30 million that the taxpayers could have had. The April 26 Sun-Times headline was based on that false premise. When a loan you made goes bad, you're already screwed. You're highly unlikely to get back all the principal and interest--$40,013,893 in the case of Springfield and Collinsville--to which you're theoretically entitled. You just have to salvage what you can. Topinka thought she had.

Attorney General Jim Ryan wasn't so sure. One glaring discrepancy caught his eye. Previous appraisals of the Springfield and Collinsville hotels--one as recent as December 1992--had consistently found Springfield worth about $9 million and Collinsville somewhat less. The mid-1994 REAC appraisal on which Topinka relied showed Springfield suddenly nosediving to $4.5 million. In May Ryan invoked his official duty to investigate any compromise of a state debt and asked a blue-ribbon committee of nine professors in the University of Illinois' finance department to render a disinterested opinion on whether Topinka had settled for too little. Committee members visited both hotels briefly and examined the REAC appraisal of hotels and loans at length. On July 8 they issued a 28-page report arguing that the state should get between $13 and $19 million, not $10 million.

Most of the discrepancy involved Springfield, not Collinsville. The "ad hoc committee," as they prefer to be called, had spotted a basic $3 million mistake in the 1994 appraisal of the Springfield hotel. The hotel had lumped repair, maintenance, and utility expenses together in one category. The appraiser had separated out the utilities--but then neglected to reduce the "repairs and maintenance" item by that amount. As a result REAC seriously overestimated the expenses, which led it to underestimate the hotel's value. In addition, the appraisal firm had not been told about, and so had not counted, the value of the various loan guarantees. (These guarantees had been the reason Attorney General Roland Burris ruled in 1991 that the second restructuring was a legal agreement instead of a con job.) These two changes alone suggested that the treasurer should have been able to get more than $10 million.

But Topinka didn't back down in the face of the university report. She attacked its assumptions ("no basis in reality"), its methods (it "disregard[s] the only two other bids we had received for the mortgage notes on the hotels"), and even the competence of its authors ("I doubt that the University of Illinois professors have done many appraisals or even have the certification"). She regarded their conclusions as outrageously optimistic--though they still confirmed that the state will never see even half of its money.

One of the ad hoc committee's most important assumptions was that a state foreclosure in 1999, if it came to that, would not be "difficult, time consuming, or inordinately costly." Topinka blasted that notion as unrealistic, given that the borrowers had already proved litigious. But the committee did count the possible cost and delay of foreclosure proceedings in its estimate (at 4 percent of the hotels' value, as did REAC), and even doubling their figure doesn't reduce the value they put on the hotels to anything close to $10 million.

On the committee's authority Ryan quashed Topinka's deal. And that ended her attempt to get out of the noose.

But the story is still unwinding. Because the borrowers' suit against Quinn is over, the treasurer and attorney general will now get a good look at the expenses at the Springfield and Collinsville hotels, and the question Quinn asked in 1991--are we getting paid what we should?--may finally be answered. (For what it's worth, the U. of I. group did compare the Springfield Ramada Renaissance's expenses to other hotels in general and to other conference-center hotels in particular. They found that Springfield's expenses were extraordinarily high relative to its gross income.)

The end of the litigation could also allow the treasurer to again try to sell the loans. They might well bring less than the $10 million Topinka could have had--after all, it's hard to imagine bidders willing to twist in the wind while the treasurer, attorney general, and governor hold press conferences and try to agree among themselves. However, the loans might bring more than $10 million: the closer the 1999 pay-or-be-foreclosed deadline comes, the closer a loan buyer would be to either getting a large cash payment or taking over the hotels.

Yet maybe potential investors shouldn't count on a default in 1999. State senator Peter Fitzgerald is convinced the borrowers will pay the big lump sum at the last minute, simply because allowing a foreclosure would expose the partners to more costly tax consequences--as Cellini suggested. But most observers look at the hotels' abysmal payment record so far and predict a 1999 default.

If they're right, on New Year's Day 1999 the Springfield and Collinsville borrowers will be in default. Whoever's lucky enough to be in the governor's, attorney general's, and treasurer's chairs that day will face the same choice Thompson and Cosentino faced in 1988 and 1990: foreclose and sell the hotels or offer the borrowers another loan restructuring.

All the appraisals, reports, and refutations to date have been attempts to guess what the state might get out of this turn-of-the-millennium scenario. If a foreclosure sale (plus loan guarantees) were to bring less than $10 million (plus whatever interest would accrue over the next four years) then Topinka would be vindicated after all. If the price is significantly higher, Ryan will be vindicated.

The taxpayers and the media are going to need long memories on this one. Of course, if we had long memories Thompson and Cosentino wouldn't have been able to hide out this year while Topinka took the punishment they'd earned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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