This piece was reported in collaboration with Pando.com.
On March 5 the City Council voted 46-3 to approve Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to spend $55 million in property taxes on a new Marriott hotel in the South Loop—part of his ambitious development plan that also features a basketball arena for DePaul University.
The vote followed a September decision by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, a state-city entity, to award Marriott the coveted contract to run the new hotel.
Following the council vote, the mayor and his aides crowned themselves wizards of economic development. "The hotel will generate new taxes and jobs while supporting the area’s planned revitalization," said Andrew Mooney, the city’s planning commissioner.
However, what the mayor and his aides didn’t mention—and what has gone unreported until now—is that in the year leading up to the lucrative deal for Marriott, the hedge fund of one of Emanuel’s largest campaign contributors bought millions of shares of stock in the hotel chain.
That hedge fund, Citadel LLC, is run by billionaire Kenneth Griffin, whom Forbes last fall deemed the wealthiest man in Illinois. He is famous in the financial world for making a killing in high-frequency trading.
Griffin, though, is not just a financial speculator. He’s also a generous political contributor. At the national level he was a major fund-raiser for Mitt Romney, and in February he hosted a fund-raiser at his home for New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
In Illinois, Griffin has donated to former mayor Richard M. Daley (at least $162,000) and former governor Rod Blagojevich ($70,000). He’s also a big backer of Bruce Rauner, the Republican candidate for governor: Since November, he’s donated more than $500,000 to Rauner’s campaign. That includes about $49,000 in in-kind contributions for allowing the Rauner campaign to use his private aircraft.
That said, out of all the relationships Citadel has forged with politicians, few appear to be as close as the one the firm has developed with the Chicago mayor behind the Marriott deal.
Griffin describes Mayor Emanuel as his "good friend." Over the last three years Griffin and his wife, Anne Dias Griffin, have together donated more than $210,000 to Emanuel’s campaign. And other Citadel employees have donated at least $172,000 to the mayor’s war chest.
Additionally, in December, Emanuel appointed Dan Widawsky, then a top Citadel executive, as the city’s comptroller, overseeing the Department of Finance.
When asked to comment, a Citadel spokesman said: "We appreciate the opportunity to contribute to your story but are going to pass at this time."
Mayor Emanuel’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
On February 19, 2013, Mayor Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn announced that McPier would build a giant hotel not far from the McCormick Place convention center. That May they announced that DePaul would be constructing the basketball arena.