Kass: Mayor's shell game should have taxpayers clutching their wallets

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Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass wonders why Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing for casinos and other venues around the city instead of focusing on other issues. (Posted on: May 17, 2013)

I've got a feeling that in some weird, alternate universe, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making a decent living playing hide-the-pea.

You know the game, don't you?

First, you put your money down. Then Mr. Misdirection places a pea under one of three cups. He begins moving them faster and faster, talking and talking and talking, until his hands stop. Then it's time to find that pea.

Usually, you lose.

But in the Chicago political universe, the pea isn't exactly a pea. Taxpayers don't lose their mortgages and rent money and their kids' college funds over some stupid peas.

They'll lose it at a casino.

A big, fat casino, controlled by Rahm Emanuel, generating millions of dollars in cash each year. A casino with no troublesome city inspector general or state gaming regulators to look over his shoulder.

So who'll get the contracts, and how, and who gets hired and who doesn't, and what about the guys behind the guys? Forget about it. If City Hall runs the casino and hires a management company to operate it, think of that information as just a handful of lost peas.

The Rahmfather deftly hid his best pea Thursday, talking and talking about a $1.1 billion plan to refurbish Navy Pier, while also building two hotels and a 10,000-seat basketball arena for DePaul University near McCormick Place.

There were grand plans, promises of jobs and revenue, artist renderings, the entire package. Except for one thing.

There wasn't an artist rendering of the City Hall casino — a proposal that's working its way through the state legislature in Springfield.

But reporters asked him anyway.

"Well, since it has been 20 years of debating in Springfield whether we get a casino," the Rahmfather said. "I think before anybody talks about where, the most important location is Springfield. We've got to get it done. That's what I'm focused on."

That's very nice, mayor. But the rest of Illinois should be focusing on three questions:

No. 1. Where's the oversight?

Emanuel has worked to gut Inspector General Joe Ferguson's powers to investigate corruption at City Hall. And the mayor plays hide-the-ethics-pea with reporters every day. He thinks he's being slick. But he's losing credibility fast.

Emanuel doesn't want to be bothered by the state gaming board. The board's true leverage over casinos is the threat to yank their state licenses. But if the Rahmfather's casino authority is woven into political maneuvering in Springfield that includes much-needed state pension reform, Gov. Pat Quinn might be compelled to sign it. And the deal could go through.

And then no one will be looking into the Chicago casino books but the Rahmfather himself.

"He didn't advertise putting a casino there near McCormick Place, but that's where this is leading," reform Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, told me. "The basketball arena, the hotels, you see where it's going.

"Yet we haven't yet had a public policy debate on oversight and possible corruption," Waguespack said. "And Chicago needs that kind of debate."

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