Nearly a year-and-a-half after federal agents raided Lyons Village Hall as part of a sweeping corruption investigation, clean government has become a top issue in the west suburb’s upcoming election as controversial Mayor Chris Getty seeks a fourth term.
Getty, the son of a former mayor who went to federal prison for stealing from the village, is fending off a challenge from residents vowing reform. At the same time, the current mayor has spent nearly $100,000 in campaign funds on legal fees as part of the wide-ranging probe that has hit suburban mayors, state lawmakers, contractors and utility giant Commonwealth Edison.
At stake for Getty is not only maintaining his political power and access to campaign cash, but a significant payday. Should Getty win, he stands to make at least $70,000 in salary for each of the next four years as mayor and liquor commissioner. That’s compared to $10,000 he made in both jobs when he was first elected in 2009. The salaries have been growing steadily since Getty himself pushed the pay hikes through a compliant Lyons Village Board. With insurance and retirement, his total compensation at the end of 2021 will exceed $109,000.
Richard Gatz Jr., a longtime resident of the working-class suburb who was a village board member nearly 20 years ago, is running for mayor along with a slate of board member and clerk candidates on the Village Integrity Party ticket.
Gatz said the federal investigation spurred him to run and he promised, if elected, to fight to eliminate the scheduled pay raises for elected officials and reimpose term limits.
“I’ve heard from a lot of residents that they are tired of it,” Gatz said. “They want a change and, honestly, I think we can make a change that’s needed.”
Getty’s tenure as mayor has been characterized by machine-like politics. He’s hired family and friends into village jobs and overseen a series of cozy deals with campaign contributors.
He put his father Ken — who was sent to prison as part of a bid-rigging scheme that prosecutors said netted $179,000 — back on the public payroll as chairman of the Lyons zoning appeals board. He also bought a house from a campaign contributor on land that used to be owned by the village, a questionable deal first raised by the Better Government Association and Fox 32 in 2019.
A few months after that BGA story, federal agents raided the village hall in Lyons and Getty’s private insurance office in town. The feds also searched the offices of one prominent government contractor and subpoenaed the offices of others. Among the items the FBI requested from Lyons were records regarding Getty’s home purchase.
Getty, who is also the Lyons Township supervisor, has not been charged and has previously denied he’s done anything wrong. He did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment for this story.
Still, the federal investigation has shown little evidence of subsiding.
In the weeks after the raid, records and interviews show, Getty hired the Chicago law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson to represent him, paying the firm through one of the campaign funds he controls. Those payments continued throughout 2020, with the most recent occurring in October when the Citizens for Christopher Getty campaign fund sent two checks to the law firm totaling $30,400, according to the state election records.
“As his attorney, we’ve cooperated completely with the investigation and I have no indication Chris will be charged with anything,” said Daniel Purdom, an attorney at the firm representing Getty. Purdom is a former assistant federal prosecutor who specializes in white collar criminal defense.
Despite having spent nearly $100,000 out of his campaign fund on legal fees, Getty holds a sizable fundraising lead over his political opponents.
Records show Getty has more than $327,000 in campaign cash at his disposal – a massive sum for a mayor of a town of about 10,600 people. Gatz said he has only about $6,500 in campaign cash on hand.
“We are long-term citizens and I can hope that stands for something but I don’t know what to expect because we don’t have money,” said Tina Marie Melendez, a paraprofessional at Lyons School District 103 who is running for Lyons Village Board against Getty’s United Citizens Party slate. “We can hope that people have had enough.”
Among those who have contributed to Getty’s campaign fund for his current election run are two companies that were identified in the federal search warrant used at Lyons Village Hall in 2019.
In November, Skyway Homes, a development company operating out of a Brookfield apartment, contributed $2,500 to the United Citizens Party, bringing to $28,000 the total amount of money the firm or affiliated companies have contributed to Getty-tied campaign funds.
In 2019, the BGA reported Lyons – under Getty’s direction – demolished a run-down house, purchased the lot and then sold it to Skyway at a nearly $13,500 loss. The company then built a new house on the site and sold it to Getty without listing it on the market where it could have drawn competing offers. The company has also built other homes on lots purchased from the village at discount prices. It bought its latest parcel from Lyons last fall, six weeks before the firm’s November campaign contribution.
Also last year, Reliable Materials contributed $1,500 to Getty’s campaign funds. The firm owned by Illinois asphalt and construction magnate Michael Vondra was hired by the village to fill in a quarry adjacent to village hall. In all, the company has contributed more than $100,000 to Getty’s campaigns over the years. Days before federal agents raided Lyons Village Hall, they also raided Reliable’s corporate headquarters in Bartlett as part of its investigation into statewide influence peddling.
To date, the federal dragnet has led to charges against more than a dozen high-profile politicians and insiders and uncovered a near decadelong bribery scheme in which utility giant Commonwealth Edison sought to win the favor of former Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan for legislation by giving jobs and contracts to Madigan’s allies. Madigan has not been charged.
In the west suburbs, the most prominent politicians to plead guilty to corruption charges related to the federal operation are the late state Sen. Martin Sandoval of Cicero and former Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, who doubled as the mayor of McCook, an industrial suburb of less than 300 people that borders Lyons.
Sandoval, a Getty supporter whose district had included Lyons, pleaded guilty last year to collecting more than $250,000 in bribes in exchange for using his political influence or taking official action to benefit private business including a red-light camera company. During the search of his Springfield office, federal agents sought information about Vondra and his road construction companies. As head of the state Senate’s transportation committee, Sandoval served as a gatekeeper for road projects throughout the state. Sandoval died in December of COVID-19.
Tobolski, a longtime political ally and campaign contributor of Getty’s, resigned from both jobs before pleading guilty to tax fraud and accepting more than a quarter million dollars in bribery and extortion payments from regional businesses in his dual role as mayor and commissioner. Election records show Tobolski has mostly exhausted his campaign fund after spending more than $400,000 on attorney fees since the raids.
This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.