At first glance, it may seem puzzling that last week's list of federal indictments included the powerful lobbying firm of Ronan Potts, but not the guy who runs the firm, Al Ronan.
Ronan's attorney has all but admitted that Ronan is "Fawell Associate 1," who was repeatedly referred to in the indictments of former George Ryan chief of staff Scott Fawell and others connected to Fawell's alleged schemings at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which Fawell ran for four years.
Essentially, what the scam boiled down to was that Fawell allegedly rigged the bids on a highly lucrative project at McPier.
Big projects usually require two rounds of bids. After the first round, two or three finalists are chosen and they are then given an opportunity to refine their proposals.
Fawell, as McPier's top honcho, had access to the sealed bids of the three finalists. He was then in a position to help his favorite company win the second round. And, according to the US Attorney's office, that's just what he did.
According to the indictments, Ronan talked to Fawell about making Julie Starsiak the contact person for Ronan's client in the expansion project, Jacobs Facilities. Starsiak has been with Ronan for years, starting as his district office manager when he was still in the Illinois House of Representatives. Ronan got her state contracts worth $90,000 back then.
The feds allege that Starsiak gave Ronan information about the top-secret sealed bids that were submitted by Jacobs' competitors.
The feds also allege that Ronan helped cover up misdeeds relating to the goings-on at McPier.
Fawell allegedly hired people referred by Ronan, and told his employees "to award special access and business to clients of Ronan Potts."
Ms. Starsiak told the feds that Ronan called an official with Jacobs Facilities and strongly suggested that the company lower its bid by a specific amount so it could win the rebidding process.
That's what got Starsiak indicted. Starsiak had been given immunity in exchange for coming clean. When she allegedly denied talking to her client's Chicago representative about the rigged bid and appeared to blame everything on Ronan, the feds decided that she had broken the immunity agreement and charged Starsiak with lying to a federal investigator.
Ronan's attorney has flatly denied any wrongdoing by his client, and has insisted that Ronan's indicted firm will not plead guilty.
Ronan has been a major operator almost since the first day he arrived in Springfield. He mastered the art of the deal, but eventually believed he was so strong that he could topple House Speaker Michael Madigan. The idea was to have one Democrat, South Side state Rep. Sam Panayotovich, switch parties and run for re-election as a Republican. Once Sam-Pan won, then Ronan's entire crew would become Republicans, giving the majority to the House GOP. But Sam-Pan lost, and not long after that, Ronan lost his primary to a Madigan-backed candidate.
Al Ronan has been through investigations before and has always come out unscathed. There was the time when the Illinois State Police poked around a tollway land deal. Ronan represented the landowner, who had doubled his money on the property in just four years. Turns out, before and during the wildly successful negotiations with the tollway, Ronan paid a tollway board member's consulting company over $11,000 in fees.
Ronan knows almost everybody in this business, including people you might not care to know. The Northwest Side, Ronan's turf, is filled with shady ward heelers, and most of them worked for George Ryan's 1998 gubernatorial campaign and Rod Blagojevich's 2002 campaign. Ryan gave Ronan's organization lots of jobs and contracts over the years. And Ronan had a hand in placing some high-level people in Blagojevich's administration, including the budget director.
A friend of mine recently recalled a conversation with Ronan from many years ago. Ronan said that whenever the feds start snooping around, he immediately offers his cooperation and gives them everything he has.
It almost goes without saying that Al Ronan may have a lot to give this time around. The feds badly want to put George Ryan behind bars, and Ronan knows where a lot of bones are buried. If he knows something about the current governor's friends and relatives, well, that could just be icing on the cake.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at www.capitolfax.com.