Illinois Supreme Court to decide whether landlord who accused former alderman of zoning shakedown can sue the city

CHICAGO (CBS) – A former Chicago building owner is fighting in the Illinois Supreme Court for the right to sue the City of Chicago after what he calls an aldermanic shakedown, ended with his property being rezoned lowering its value. 

Brian Strauss owned a building at Milwaukee and Damen. It housed historic music venue Double Door for two decades, until Strauss evicted the business in February 2017. Strauss said the alderman at the time, Proco Joe Moreno threatened him over the eviction – comments that were caught on cell phone video. Strauss said the video was taken the day of the eviction and Moreno knew he was being recorded.

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In the video, Moreno said he’s upset over the “tragedy” of the club’s closing.

“It’s a part of life,” Strauss said.

“Right,” said Moreno. “And part of life is also that you’re not going to have a tenant in here for three years.”

The fight reportedly stemmed from Moreno wanting to keep the Double Door, a campaign donor, in the building.

“I felt that he was intimidating me and that that he was threatening me,” Strauss said in 2017.

“You can’t sign new leases for your tenants,” Moreno said in the video. “It’s going to be an empty building with no income for you or your family. End of conversation.”

“Nothing is going to happen in this building,” Moreno continued. “It’s going to be an empty building for you or your family.”

“He was trying to bully me basically,” Strauss said in 2019. “He threatened to send inspectors.”

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“I’m going to have inspectors here on a daily basis. You watch,” Moreno said in the video. “And I don’t think you’re a man.”

Chicago’s aldermen, for decades, have wielded power including changing zoning in their wards, which often is referred to as aldermanic prerogative. Strauss says the power was abused the day his alderman showed up at his property and vowed to take away his zoning status.

“Please don’t threaten me,” Strauss said in the video.

“I’m not threatening you,” Moreno responded. “It’s a promise. There’s a difference. A threat means it’s not going to happen.”

Moreno can be heard telling Strauss he’s going to use his power to make sure Strauss would never maintain his zoning to rent or sell his property to anyone else – and he threatened to downzone the property.

“And by the way, when the leases are up there, since there is downzoning, you can’t sign new leases for your tenants. So whenever those leases are up and those guys want to leave, and you want to sign a new lease with a new tenant, you’re not going to be able to. I’m being up front with you,” Moreno said.

As the recorded argument with Strauss ended, Moreno walked over to one of the Double Door owners, shook his hand and said, “I can’t be more frank than that.”

Soon after the confrontation, Moreno made good on his promise. He successfully introduced an ordinance to change the building’s zoning. Called “downzoning,” it restricted the type of commercial and residential renters Strauss was able to sign.

“It was just because of pure revenge,” Strauss said.

The City Council backed Moreno.

Strauss filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago. Attorneys for the city successfully argued it had immunity in this situation, and therefore could not be sued.  The city won the argument in both the state and appellate courts. The Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and will decide if Strauss has the right to sue the city. His attorneys argued the alderman, and other city employees, had different roles in the zoning change; which caused Strauss to lose a million dollars. The attorney for the city argued, in part, the city should not be held liable for the former alderman’s actions.

James McKay Jr., one of the attorneys representing Strauss, previously said, “He [Moreno] abused his power to get even with this man and his family because they evicted his pals”.

McKay Jr. had also said this about the City Council members who voted in favor of the downzoning: “They didn’t care because they have their zoning matters in their own ward.” “It’s give and take. The aldermen will scratch each other’s back. That’s how aldermanic prerogative or aldermanic privilege works,” he added.

When she took office, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she would seek to end aldermanic prerogative.

“These practices have gone on for far too long,” she said in 2019. “This practice breeds corruption. Stopping it isn’t just in the city’s interest. It’s in the city council’s interest.”

While she has managed to scale back aldermanic control over various city permits, she has yet to move to take away their control over zoning matters.

Back in 2017, Moreno addressed the videotaped confrontation and said he had done nothing wrong.

“I’m glad the video is out there,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. People get heated.”

Moreno said it was his job to protect community institutions like Double Door. He also said there were a lot of problems at the building, and he wanted to make sure the building was safe.

Strauss had said any past violations were minor and had been repaired or were in the process of being repaired. 

In 2019, Moreno was voted out of office.

“I am proud to say that he is no longer an alderman,” Strauss said that year.

Strauss and his attorney have also wanted Moreno investigated for what they say happened during a 10th floor City Hall meeting with Moreno and other city officials.

“He was actually trying to orchestrate the sale of the building,” Strauss said.

Strauss claims in the meeting Moreno gave him another chance to avoid the downzoning, if he agreed to sell the building for $3 million less than it was worth.

Strauss says it all happened right in front of another alderman who was the head of the zoning committee — Danny Solis, former alderman turned FBI mole.

“He consistently rolled his eyes. It was very obvious that he knew what was happening was very wrong,” Strauss said.

Strauss said he hopes Solis was wearing a wire that day. In April, Solis pleaded not guilty to a federal bribery charge. Solis, 72, has entered into what is known as a deferred prosecution agreement, in which federal prosecutors have agreed to drop the charges against Solis after three years in exchange for his continued cooperation in cases against Ald. Edward Burke and former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The Double Door space stayed empty for a year and a half. Strauss ended up selling the building his family owned since 1977.

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