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BGA, 2 Investigators: Taverns Give Campaign Cash To Mayors Who Regulate Them

(CBS) -- Who is keeping an eye on your local bar and making sure it's following the rules? In many suburbs, the mayor also serves as liquor commissioner.

But as CBS 2's Pam Zekman and the Better Government Association discovered, at least 50 mayors have taken campaign contributions totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the same bars they regulate --  and it's not illegal.

But Andy Shaw, head of the BGA, says the practice "creates an incentive for a bar owner to give campaign cash to the mayor, the liquor commissioner, so that he or she will overlook bad behavior in the bar."

BGA Logo
Better Government Association logo. (Credit: BGA)

Bolingbrook Mayor Roger Claar has collected more than $78,000 from businesses he's approved for liquor licenses.

And Schaumburg Village President Al Larson has received about $74,000 over the years.

Both said the contributions do not affect the decisions they make.

Liquor commissioners have the power to discipline bar owners for everything from excessive noise complaints, to serving underage kids or over-serving customers who end up getting into fights or worse.

La Quinta de Los Reyes, an Aurora restaurant, had already been cited for one of those violations when the owner, Jesus Sanchez, says he was approached by a committee raising money for Aurora Mayor Thomas Weisner.

Sanchez says members of the committee told him, "We want to hold a fundraiser for the mayor. We are wondering if you want to give us your support to do it. I say yes."

"Did you do it to try and influence the case?" Zekman asked.

"No," Sanchez responded. He said he did it because "I feel he has done a good job for the community."

Records show the restaurant's in-kind donation for the March fundraiser was valued at $5,000.

Two months later, the restaurant was fined $500 for serving an underage drinker in September 2011. But a more serious charge involving a battery by a patron was dismissed by the city.

"This is a poster child for the problem here -- the possibility that the mayor as liquor commission would overlook serious violations in an establishment," Shaw says.

Over the years, records show Mayor Weisner has received more than $48,000 from liquor license holders since 2004. Weisner says that does not create a conflict for him.

"It's not a factor in my decision-making," he says.

Weisner says the LaQuinta case was handled properly by his deputy liquor commissioner, who determined there was no evidence to show the patron was drunk when he struck a restaurant security guard; therefore, the restaurant could not be held responsible.

But as a result of CBS 2's inquiries, the mayor says he'll appoint a three-member commission to review liquor violations because of the "perception" people might have of a potential conflict.

"If that's the case, then I'm ready to fix it," Weisner says.

The owners of Adrianna's Sports Bar in Markham have contributed $7,000 to Mayor David Webb since 2010.

Markham records show that last year the police were called dozens of times to deal with complaints ranging from loud music to reports of fights in progress at the bar's address.

Mayor Webb says he was unaware of all the police calls to Adrianna's and will talk to the owners about it. He says he will re-evaluate the hours the bar is allowed to serve alcohol if there is a pattern of problems during the early morning hours it is open.

The general manager of Adrianna's says operators make a practice of calling police when there is any trouble.

In a written statement, he said the police calls "that truly were initiated by Adrianna's are the result of the high standard we place upon safety first for all of our patrons, staff and neighbors in the area." He said Adrianna's is a safe venue.

As for contributions from liquor license-holders, Mayor Webb said: "I make it crystal clear to all of them there are no favors. I'm not breaking the law or doing anything unethical to help anyone for gain. That's not the way I do business."

Webb has received about $25,000 in campaign contributions from businesses that have liquor licenses in Markham. He says he may change that practice.

"If the Better Government Association feels like this is a problem, I'll be the first one to not solicit them for any contributions at all," he says.

Gloria Mateer, executive director of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, says her employees are barred from accepting anything of value from the liquor industry.

"It would follow that local municipalities would have rules, too," she says. "But they don't."

But there are exceptions. The Village of Downers Grove bans liquor license holders and applicants from "directly or indirectly making campaign contributions to elected officials."

Those that do could be fined or even have their license revoked.

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