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Thursday, Feb. 19, 2004 10:43 pm

Smooth operator

At first glance, it may seem puzzling that last week's list of federal indictments included the powerful lobbying firm of Ronan Potts, but not Al Ronan, the guy who runs the firm.

Ronan's attorney has all but admitted that Ronan is "Fawell Associate 1," who was repeatedly referred to in the indictments of former George Ryan chief of staff Scott Fawell and others connected to Fawell's alleged schemings at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. The feds allege Fawell, who ran McPier for four years, rigged bids on a highly lucrative project.

Big projects usually require two rounds of bids. After the first round, the finalists get an opportunity to refine their proposals. Fawell had access to the sealed bids of the three finalists. He was then in a position to help his favorite company win the second round. And, according to the U.S. Attorney's office, that's just what he did.

According to the indictments, Ronan talked to Fawell about making Julie Starsiak the contact person for Jacobs Facilities, the firm that Ronan Potts was representing. Starsiak has been with Ronan for years, starting as his district office manager when he was still in the Illinois House of Representatives.

Starsiak, the feds allege, gave Ronan information about the top-secret sealed bids that were submitted by Jacobs' competitors. The feds also allege that Ronan helped cover up misdeeds relating to the goings-on at McPier. The indictment also alleges that Fawell hired people referred by Ronan, and told his employees "to award special access and business to clients of Ronan Potts."

Starsiak told the feds that Ronan called an official with Jacobs Facilities and strongly suggested that the company lower its bid by a specific amount so it could win the rebidding process.

That's what got Starsiak indicted. Starsiak had been given immunity in exchange for coming clean. But when she allegedly denied talking to her client's Chicago representative about the rigged bid and appeared to blame everything on Ronan, the feds decided that she had broken the immunity agreement and charged Starsiak with lying to a federal investigator.

Ronan's attorney has flatly denied any wrongdoing by his client, and has insisted that Ronan's firm will not plead guilty.

Al Ronan has been a major operator almost since he first arrived in Springfield. He's been through investigations before and has always come out unscathed. One time, the Illinois State Police poked around a tollway land deal. Ronan represented the landowner, who had doubled his money on the property in just four years. Turns out, before and during the wildly successful negotiations with the tollway, Ronan paid a tollway board member's consulting company over $11,000 in fees.

Ronan knows almost everybody in this business, including people you might not care to know. The Northwest Side, Ronan's turf, is filled with shady ward heelers, and most of them worked for Ryan's 1998 gubernatorial campaign and Rod Blagojevich's 2002 campaign. Ryan gave Ronan's organization lots of jobs and contracts over the years. And Ronan had a hand in placing some high-level people in Blagojevich's administration, including the budget director.

A friend of mine recently recalled a conversation with Ronan from many years ago. Whenever the feds start snooping around, Ronan said he immediately cooperates and gives them everything he has.

Ronan may have a lot to give this time. The feds badly want to put Ryan behind bars, and Ronan knows where a lot of bones are buried. If he knows something about the current governor's friends and relatives, well, that could just be icing on the cake.

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