It’s an eviction case that has lasted more than 10 years. The Chicago Board of Education has been mired in court trying to evict and collect back rent and taxes from one of its tenants. That tenant happens to be south side state Rep. Monique Davis, who shares the building with a community nonprofit. Why is Davis still there? And is the state's most powerful politician, House Speaker Michael Madigan, involved?
Rep. Davis has worked out of an office on West 95th Street since 1988. The building is owned by the Chicago Board of Education, which says she hasn’t paid rent since 2002.
“Landlords can't just evict tenants, so you have to go through a process. CPS brought an action in the circuit court of Cook County,” said James Sullivan, Inspector General for Chicago Public Schools.
The Board of Ed and Cook County filed a joint lawsuit in 2009 to recover more than $100,000 in back rent and $456,000 in tax, fees and fines.
Sullivan says he doubts that a normal eviction case would last this long. The issue was first brought to light in a 2009 IG report, seven years after Davis stopped paying rent.
“It's hard to understand. CPS is losing out on the revenue, either the rent, or knocking the building down and selling the lot, or selling the building,” he said. “So CPS is desperately losing out on revenue it needs.”
All lawmakers receive $69,000 for office expenses, including rent. We visited Davis' office on multiple occasions but were told she wasn't in.
I spoke with Davis on the phone two weeks ago, but several follow-up calls were not returned. In that initial conversation, she explained to me why she didn't believe she owed taxes on her rent. But when I asked her why she didn't believe she owed the rent itself, she told me to call her lawyer.
In 2010, Davis’ case was dropped in county court and referred to the Illinois Court of Claims. It’s an obscure judicial body that hears civil cases brought against the state. The court consists of 16 commissioners, all appointed by the governor. They hear the case, and present their findings to seven judges, also appointed by the governor.
Campaign finance records show that each judge on the court has contributed to the state Democratic Party, with multiple contributions to lawmakers like Ed Burke, Rod Blagojevich and Mike Madigan.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan defends each case brought before the Court of Claims. Her office is currently defending Davis against the Board of Education.
“We're paying for lawyers to bring action against her. We're paying for lawyers to represent her from the attorney general's office, to basically determine probably money from what governmental entity is going to be given to another governmental entity. It's a complete waste of money,” said Sullivan.
Also defending Davis' case is the chief legal counsel to Mike Madigan and the Democratic Party, Mike Kasper. He says state law has it wrong on the tax count.
“These are government offices. In this case, the tenant is the state of Illinois who rents the space on behalf of the legislator," said Kasper. That's clearly a government use, and the law is pretty well-established. We think that the government use of property is not subject to property taxation."
The Board of Education disagrees.
“The lease that CPS had was with the state representative individually, and therefore that's not a public purpose,” Sullivan said. “So, when public property is used for private purpose, then the tenant owes leasehold taxes directly.”
Kasper also says it is state policy to not pay rent if there is no written lease agreement. The Board of Education did not renew Davis’ lease in 2002.
“There just simply hasn't been a resolution. But I don't think that Representative Davis has ever said that the state ought not pay rent for her office,” said Kasper. "I don't think that she's ever made that contention."
The Attorney General's office now wants the Court of Claims to drop the case. They believe the Board of Education waited too long to bring it to court.
“The statute of limitations is five years, so one of the contentions that the state is asserting in the court of claims is that the statute of limitations is expired,” said Kasper.
A source within the board tells me that for years Speaker Madigan's office pressured the school system not to take action against Davis. In the last legislative session, a bill passed the House that would have exempted Davis and all public officials from leaseholder taxes. It was sponsored by Madigan's top lieutenant, Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie.
Absent a resolution, the tab for past rent and taxes grows. Sullivan believes that the state of Illinois and Monique Davis now owes well over $1 million.
A community development organization also occupies Davis' district office and does not pay rent, according to the CPS inspector general. Meanwhile, the commissioner appointed to try the case in the Court of Claims has recently been named a judge in Lake County, and is off the case.