Cook County Land Bank Authority probe: Another insider deal at beleaguered county agency led by Bridget Gainer

Facing a federal investigation into its real estate dealings, the Cook County Land Bank Authority hired a lawyer who was living with the top aide to Bridget Gainer, the county commissioner who founded the county agency and presides over its board.

A federal grand jury subpoenaed the land bank in May 2021, demanding records. The following month, attorney Michael Del Galdo began working for the agency, although he did not sign a contract with the county until eight months later.

Del Galdo was living in Burr Ridge with Kara Highfill, who was Gainer’s chief of staff until last month.

Del Galdo’s contract doesn’t detail what his firm was hired to do beyond saying it was “to provide guidance, counsel and legal services as directed” by the land bank’s executive director or the authority’s board of directors, which Gainer has headed since creating the agency in 2013.

According to his bills, Del Galdo’s legal services have included responding to the federal subpoena that sought records regarding two dozen properties the land bank obtained and sold in the city and suburbs.

The subpoena also sought records on Mustafaa Saleh, the land bank’s former senior asset manager, who left the agency in 2019 and later bought property from the land bank.

By the time Del Galdo’s contract was signed by the land bank’s executive director, Eleanor Gorski, on March 3, records show the agency owed the firm $25,782.

So far, the land bank has paid Del Galdo $32,766, according to its billings, which also show his firm has been paid to process requests made to the agency for public records.

“The land bank has been assured that neither the agency nor the current board, executive director or staff are subjects or targets of this investigation,” says Tarrah Cooper Wright, an outside consultant the land bank has been paying to speak on its behalf. “Neither the current executive director nor any current board members have been interviewed as part of the federal government’s investigation of a former land bank employee.”

Asked who gave the land bank that assurance, Cooper Wright says, “The Justice Department.”

Saleh declined to comment.

Gorksi replaced Robert Rose, who left the land bank in June 2021, when his contract ended.

That was one month after the agency received the grand jury subpoena, which gave no indication that he nor any other individual was a target of the investigation.

Rose’s lawyer has said Rose “was unaware of any federal grand jury investigation of the agency at the time he left the agency’s employment on June 30, 2021.”

Rose had been involved in two controversial dealings at the land bank, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.

In one of those deals, the agency agreed to take the title to a two-story building from Chester Wilson, chief of staff to Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), wipe out more than $200,000 in unpaid taxes he owed — and then, at Wilson’s urging, sell the property to Wilson’s former business partner at a bargain price of $40,000.

Rose also sold one of the tax-delinquent men the land bank had taken to his personal assistant for a price that was less than developers had offered to pay. When that deal came to light, Rose fired his aide.

Shortly after Gorksi signed the land bank’s contract with Del Galdo, his law firm provided $684 worth of unspecified legal services to Gainer’s campaign as an in-kind contribution on March 25, according to campaign-finance reports she filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections .

Gainer, who is seeking reelection in November to the Cook County Board, then reported paying Del Galdo’s firm another $684 on June 30 for what Cooper Wright describes as “routine election compliance work.”

Gainer says that, although those are listed as separate dealings with Del Galdo’s firm, they were for the same thing. She says she’s planning to amend her filings to make that clear.

Asked who recommended hiring Del Galdo, Gainer had Cooper Wright respond instead. Cooper Wright says only: “Del Galdo Law Group was hired given their extensive background and expertise in municipal law.”

Del Galdo, 49, who has given money to Gainer’s campaign fund, also has ties to other prominent Democratic politicians, including former Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), who have been indicted in separate criminal cases and are awaiting trial.

Del Galdo has hosted campaign fundraisers for Madigan and is close with Andrew Madigan, the former speaker’s son, who is an insurance broker whose clients include several suburban governments.

Burke has disclosed on city ethics statements that his law firm had been hired by Del Galdo’s firm several years ago for unspecified legal work.

Highfill, 29, worked at Madigan’s legislative staff, leaving in 2017 to be Gainer’s assistant.

She left and was working for the Illinois state treasurer’s office in October 2020 when she first registered to vote from the Burr Ridge home owned by Del Galdo. Both voted from that address in June.

Gainer rehired Highfill in April 2021 as her $95,000-a-year chief of staff. In that post, Highfill kept tabs on the land bank for Gainer, who chairs the agency’s board.

Highfill, who was Gainer’s top aide when the land bank hired Del Galdo’s law firm, left in June for a job with the Illinois Restaurant Association.

“I have had no knowledge of the federal investigation into the land bank authority beyond what the news media has reported,” Highfill says. “Additionally, I had never worked on any land bank issue related to the federal inquiry. Finally, I have had no contact by any investigative agency involved in this probe nor, in fact, regarding an investigation of any kind.”

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