Ex-Alderman's Consulting Firm Was on Topless Bar's Payroll
CHICAGO — The owner of a controversial Near North Side strip club had some help in convincing the city to let it stay open from a firm co-owned by a familiar face at City Hall — former Ald. Helen Shiller.
Lakeview Strategy Group was Shiller's first gig following her decision to not seek re-election after 24 years as 46th Ward alderman. She founded the consulting firm in 2012 with five other partners, including her son Brendan and several former staffers from her days in office.
One of the firm's clients is Perry Mandera. Mandera, a trucking executive whose companies have made big contributions to local politicians, is the president of Pooh Bah Enterprises, which owns and operates VIP's, a Gentlemen's Bar located at 1531 N. Kingsbury.
It touts itself as "Chicago's only full liquor and topless bar."
The city had been trying to shutter it since 1993 because of its violations of an ordinance that limits how much skin can be shown by employees at semi-nude, liquor-selling establishments.
City officials recently said they will allow the club to stay open if it abides by the ordinance and pays $2.5 million in disputed back taxes and legal costs to the city. Funds would be used for victims of domestic violence, and could include a shelter or subsidized housing for abused women and children, according to the Law Department.
The Shillers' consulting firm was a late addition to the legal fray, and had a role in helping reach the settlement.
As recently as Nov. 8, the city's lobbyist registry listed Helen Shiller and her son, Brendan Shiller as Pooh Bah lobbyists. Records indicated that the Shillers had lobbied the Mayor's Office, Chicago Law Department, Department of Budget and Management and City Council on behalf of Pooh Bah.
Michilla Blaise, a partner at Lakeview Strategy and a former aide in Helen Shiller's ward office, filled out all of the paper work. DNAinfo.com Chicago called Blaise on Nov. 8, but she declined to comment.
The next day, Helen Shiller was instead listed as a lobbyist for Sonia Beauty Salon.
The former alderman wrote in an email to DNAinfo.com Chicago that "it was a mistake that I was listed as the lobbyist for Pooh Bah Enterprise," but would not provide further comment.
Chicago Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew added that it "is our understanding as well, that her name was registered by mistake." The initial lobbyist statement of registration Blaise filled out with the Board of Ethics was processed on June 22, a Freedom of Information Request showed.
That original form, filled out with pen, said Helen Shiller was contracted via oral agreement to lobby for Pooh Bah, and that she was not being compensated but might "receive a flat fee" in the future.
But Brendan Shiller insisted that it was he and not his mother who had a hand in helping steer "ongoing litigation and settlement discussions" for Pooh Bah. The agreement "was entirely between me and several lawyers who represent Pooh Bah and Perry Mandera," he said.
Helen Shiller "didn't make any money from this deal; she didn't have anything to do with this deal," he said.
From July 1 to Sept. 30, Brendan Shiller lobbied the Mayor's Office and Law Department on Pooh Bah's behalf, according to lobbying disclosures that name Lakeview Strategy Group as his employer. Pooh Bah paid at least $60,000 for those services, records show.
Mandera did not return calls seeking comment.
The ex-husband of state Sen. Iris Martinez, Mandera was the 26th Ward's Republican committeeman from 1984 to 1988, and is a trucking magnate with deep enough pockets to fund a 19-year legal battle that fought the city's decision to revoke the club's business and liquor licenses.
Mandera said in court documents from a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that the club earned about $6 million a year, and that he took home $75,000 a month.
Mandera's team argued — in courtrooms from downtown, to the state Supreme Court, to the U.S. Supreme Court — that Chicago's ban on nudity at liquor-selling establishments was unconstitutional and said the ordinance violated Pooh Bah's right to free speech. He exhausted the appeal process in October, but reached a settlement with the city to keep the club open in November.
The topless bar has also come up in court in cases related to sexual harassment lawsuits and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fines that cost his trucking company, Custom Companies, more than $3 million.
EEOC attorneys said that the trucking firm had a "hypersexualized" work environment, claiming there were lap dances at company events by employees from Mandera's strip club, and accusations of sexual harassment from several female employees.
Sales representatives from the trucking firm were also encouraged to take clients to Mandera's club, according to court documents.
VIP's has gone through several name changes since Mandera acquired it in 1993, when it was called Thee Dollhouse and owned by another politically-connected man, James Levin, a Democratic fund raiser and friend of Bill Clinton. Levin plead guilty to participating in a minority contract fraud scheme in 2006.