Total paid to Neal & Leroy since Rahm's Board took office in May 2011 is at least $2.5 million... Chicago Election Commission Chief Langdon Neal's law firm received millions for vaguely defined 'legal work' from the Chicago Board of Education since Rahm Emanuel took office in May 2011....

If, as some expect, the vote totals for the April 7 mayoral election in Chicago are razor thin, the the question will arise who decides on the final vote count. As some know and many may become aware, Chicago will not even count "absentee" ballots unless the results of the general election is very very close. By the end of early voting (Saturday, April 4, 2015), it was clear that the turnout for this election was going to be very large, and while Mayor Rahm Emanuel was basically hiding from voters (and most reporters), an explosion of public support for challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia was prompting talk of a "movement" that has gone national. Langdon Neal, chairman of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, is also partner in the law firm of Neal & Leroy, which has received millions of dollar in contracts from various agencies under the control of Rahm Emanuel since May 2011 when Rahm became mayor. Neal will ultimately decide who has won the 2015 runoff for mayor of Chicago.So who would get to say what the final vote is after the polls close on April 7, 2015? The answer is: Langdon Neal. Langdon Neal is the main partner in the law firm of Neal & Leroy, a politically powerful firm that until the final weeks in the 2015 runoff election has managed to make millions of dollars in what in other cities would probably be called massive conflicts of interest.

Langdon Neal's law firm, Neal & Leroy, has been receiving huge contracts from the Chicago Board of Education from the beginning of the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Between September 2011 and July 2014, the Board of Education of the City of Chicago voted to pay Neal & Leroy $2.5 million for vaguely defined work which was never discussed at a public meeting of the Board.

Emanuel took office in May 2011 and appointed a new Board of Education and a new "Chief Executive Officer" in May and June 2011. By September 2011, the Board of Education appointed by Rahm had begun providing huge contracts to Neal & Leroy -- without disclosing, ever to this day, the work that was being done for those contracts.

The first contract with Neal & Leroy by Rahm Emanuel's school board was approved unanimously and without debate by the Board at the Board's September 28, 2011 meeting. It provided that the Board would pay Neal and Leroy a half million dollars -- that's right, $500,000 -- for vaguely defined work.

The first "Board Report" providing a half million dollar contract with Neal & Leroy by the Board of Education appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel was approved by the Board at its September 28, 2011 meeting. The Board awarded the contract, in the amount of a half million dollars, without bidding. Subsequently, the Board has covered up any discussion of the deals with Neal & Leroy that may have taken place during "Executive Sessions" at the Board's monthly meetings. (The above graphic is a copy of the Board Report for a half million approved unanimously and without debate by the newly appointed Rahm Emanuel Board at its September 28, 2011 meeting. Board reports are available under "Actions" at the CPS website, to Chicago Board of Education records, the award of the half million dollar contract was for the following: "DESCRIPTION: The General Counsel desires to continue the retention of the law firm of Neal & Leroy, LLC to provide legal services in connection with land acquisition and related matters for the Capital Improvement Program. Additional authorization for the firms anticipated fees is requested in the amount of $500,000. As invoices are received, they will be reviewed by the General Counsel and, if satisfactory, processed for payment."

The half million dollar contract awarded four months after the Rahm Emanuel Board took office was the first of many. In fact, the Board has done two things routinely regarding the Neal & Leroy contracts. One, the Board approved them without discussion or debate. Two, the Board later votes to maintain the secrecy of the executive session discussions of these contracts. As a result, during the four years since the current Board of Education was appointed by Emanuel, there is nothing on the public record explaining more than vaguely what, if anything, Langdon Neal's law firm does for the millions it has been awarded for work for the city's public schools.

A Substance review of the "Action" agendas of the Chicago Board of Education shows that the $2.5 million came in almost routine agenda items to pay the firm $500,000 at each time. The Substance review may be incomplete, with the total between May 2011 and April 2015 even greater than $2.5 million. Substance was unable to review the votes of other public bodies awarding similar work to Neal & Leroy, but the $500,000 votes have been regular, once or twice a year, since Rahm Emanuel appointed the current Board of Education, with David Vitale as President and Jesse Ruiz as vice president.

A recent article in the International Business Times exposed some of the problems facing Chicago, where Langdon Neal is head of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, but not all. Two facts stand out now that the news is national (although they have been public knowledge for years): First, Neal has gotten away with what in other cities would be clear conflicts of interest for years and years and, Second, despite all of the talk about "transparency" and "accountability" by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the real watchwords regarding the work of Langdon Neal for at least one agency of city government -- Chicago's $5 billion (annual) public schools system -- are coverup and cash in.

First, the recent article form International Business Times:

International Business Times

If Chicagos first mayoral runoff in history ends up razor close on April 7, the city will be relying on a purportedly independent arbiter to oversee any recount. But that arbiter, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, is chaired by a politically-connected lawyer whose firm has received secret city lobbying contracts from incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuels administration. After receiving those contracts, the chairman has already used his power to boost the mayors allies against anti-Emanuel challengers in other municipal elections.

Board chairman Langdon Neal was appointed to his position by the Cook County Circuit Court, not by any city official -- a structure that is supposed to preserve the boards independence from candidates for municipal office. However, the laws establishing the election commission do not prohibit Neal from getting contracts from the mayor, whose election he will oversee. How much he has made from those contracts remains a closely guarded secret: the Emanuel administration has denied an open records request for the terms of the deals, refusing to respond to International Business Times within the timeframe mandated by Illinois law.

The only details that have been disclosed are in city lobbying records, which show that Neals law firm, Neal & Leroy, was awarded three lobbying contracts from Chicago Public Schools, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, and the Public Buildings Commission of Chicago at the beginning of 2012. Neal himself was listed as a lobbyist for the agencies in the citys disclosure database in 2012, and the most recent city records show Neal is registered as a lobbyist for the agencies in 2015. All three agencies that gave Neal & Leroy lobbying contracts are controlled by Emanuels appointees.

A 2013 advisory opinion from Cook County officials said Neal's dual roles as an election overseer and a registered lobbyist contracted by Chicago does not violate county ethics rules. Ethics experts, though, say that the financial links between Neal and Emanuel's administration present an inherent problem for an election official who is supposed to be independent from the candidates running for office.

The type of relationship that Neal & Leroy has with Chicago governmental authorities presents a conflict of interest and should be illegal, said Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Neal and Emanuels office both did not respond to IBTimes request for comment. As IBTimes was seeking comment for this story on Friday, Neal announced his plans to step down from the Chicago Board of Elections after the runoff vote. Neal did not say whether his law firm would continue its contract for city lobbying work from the Emanuel administration. On March 10, IBTimes filed an open records request with the Emanuel administration, seeking the disclosure of the total amount paid by Chicago Public Schools to Neal & Leroy. Chicago Public Schools declined to provide IBTimes with details of the lobbying expenditures. The denial came at the same time the Emanuel administration also denied IBTimes open records request to release more than 1,500 emails between the mayor, his top aide and one of his top donors, Grosvenor CEO Michael Sacks.

David Melton, the Executive Director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, questioned why Chicago Public Schools needed to hire a lobbyist for business with the City Council, where Emanuel allies constitute an overwhelming majority.

I have no idea as to why CPS would need a lobbyist, given the mayor's control of the school board and his majority on the city council, said Melton. Of the refusal by the Emanuel administration to disclose the terms of the citys contract with Neals law firm, Melton said: This contract is significant enough to merit public exposure and I am at a loss as to why they would not disclose it.

Emanuel officials' decision to award new lobbying contracts to Neal & Leroy preceded the Chicago Board of Elections issuing decisions that benefit the mayor's close allies.

In one race, Ald. Deb Mell -- the sister-in-law of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich -- who was appointed to her position by Emanuel, faced off against Tim Meegan, a public school teacher who was an outspoken critic of the mayor. In Chicagos initial round of voting on Feb. 24, city officials said Mell crossed the 50 percent threshold -- which allows candidates to avoid a runoff -- by just 14 votes. The race, though, was marred by charges of electoral improprieties, including an allegation that a Mell campaign worker was seen opening a ballot box, according to Meegans campaign manager Christopher Poulos. Despite that, the Board of Elections denied requests to permit a runoff.

The election was so close, and the potential illegalities so significant, that we thought that the Board of Elections would grant the public a runoff, so as to remove any question as to whether or not a majority of the ward voted against Deb Mell, Poulos told IBTimes.

In another aldermanic election, Emanuel critic Pete DeMay was kicked off the ballot by the Board of Elections in a race that would have pitted the challenger against a reliable ally of the mayor.

Neal & Leroy had previously secured contracts to lobby for the same three city agencies under former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. In 2007, Neal faced public criticism about potential conflicts-of-interest at the beginning of the former mayor's final term. In a 2011 Chicago Tribune story about his firm's lobbying work for both the city and corporate clients, Neal said, "I'm not a lobbyist, I don't do lobbying work."


Meet Langdon Neal, one of the insiders making deals to transform the face of Chicago

Posted By Mick Dumke on 08.01.13 at 10:34 AM

Langdon Neal: busy with land deals, lobbying, and overseeing the election of your alderman.


Langdon Neal: busy with land deals, lobbying, and overseeing the election of your alderman.

It's not literally true that Langdon Neal and his law firm are involved in every major political deal in Chicago. But sometimes it seems that way.

"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 projectthe one near McCormick Place that's set to use at least $55 million in taxpayer funds.

Near the bottom of the storyand you should read it to the bottomNeal 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 & Leroywithout a competitive bidding processto 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 redcapa baggage handlerat 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."


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