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For many people, reports of Scott’s legal and business problems appear to corroborate the official narrative: He killed himself because he was in political hot water and financial trouble. Yet for those with a more conspiratorial mindset, Scott’s problems offer equally plausible motives—perhaps even better reasons—for why someone could have wanted him dead. They wonder: What terrible political secrets did Scott know that would make someone want to put a bullet through his head? Could he have been killed over money matters?
In the summer of 2009, just months before his death, Scott received a subpoena from a federal grand jury investigating clout-based admissions at the city’s elite selective enrollment schools. Separately, James Sullivan, the inspector general for Chicago Public Schools, launched his own probe into selective-enrollment admissions, as well as another inquiry into questionable charges that Scott and other staffers had made on CPS-issued credit cards. Around the same time, media reports also revealed that Scott was working with six West Side ministers to buy city-owned land, at $1 per lot, in Douglas Park near the site of the proposed cycling venue for the 2016 Olympics. Critics contended that the land values of those lots would almost surely skyrocket if the city got the Olympics and that, because Scott was a leading member of the city’s Olympic planning committee, his involvement was a conflict of interest.
On the Friday afternoon before his death on Sunday, Scott abruptly and inexplicably canceled his scheduled appointments for the rest of that day. (It was later reported that he had met, or was supposed to meet, with Sullivan to discuss Sullivan’s internal probe.) Scott’s driver told investigators that Scott asked to be taken home around 2 p.m. “because he forgot something.” The driver said Scott told him he would call if he decided to return to the office. He never called.
Wallace Davis says Scott came to see him at the Catfish Corner, in the late afternoon that day. Scott, says Davis, confided to him that he had been called to go in front of a grand jury first thing Monday morning to face questions about the feds’ probe into political favoritism at CPS. Davis says Scott asked for his advice. On this topic, Davis is as good a sounding board as anyone—he served three years in prison in the late 1980s on federal corruption charges for taking bribes and kickbacks.
Over a tray of fried shrimp—Scott’s favorite dish—and a six-pack of beer, Davis says, he explained to Scott how the grand jury process worked and warned him about the stiff penalties for perjury. He also informed Scott that if he refused to answer the grand jury’s questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, he could be jailed for contempt. With that, recalls Davis, Scott jokingly suggested, “What I should do is drink a fifth and tell them everything.” The two friends laughed. “He was as calm as he could be,” says Davis. On his way out, recalls Davis, Scott said he would stop by the restaurant again on Monday to let Davis know how the grand jury session went. “One thing he did say,” adds Davis. “He said he’s not going to prison for nobody.”
It’s unclear how serious, or how far along, the federal probe of CPS ever got. Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, which led the investigative effort in this area, declined to comment. In any case, no one so far has been charged with any wrongdoing. (In January 2010, Sullivan released the findings from his internal CPS inquiry. Among other things, he found that the board had, in fact, “improperly influenced” the selection process at the top schools.)
Through it all—the investigations, the bad press—Scott betrayed no sense that anything had changed in his life or that he might soon end it, say those who were close to him. On the legal front, he told close associates he felt confident he had not done anything wrong—at CPS, with the Olympic committee, or anywhere else. Benson recalls meeting Scott for lunch a couple of weeks before he died, to talk to him about his legal troubles: “I asked him not to go into any detail, but I said, ‘Mike, how do you feel about what’s going on with you?’” says Benson. “He said, ‘Nate, I’m gonna be okay.’ He never said, ‘I’m concerned about this or that.’ All he said was, ‘It’s gonna be okay. They can’t get me on nothing, because I ain’t doing nothing.’”
During this time, Scott told family members and certain close friends that he suspected the federal authorities were using the grand jury inquiry about the selective enrollment schools—ticky-tacky stuff by Chicago corruption standards—in an effort to pressure him to cooperate in their other investigations into the potentially corrupt backroom-dealmaking world of city politics. He believed that Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney, was looking for bigger fish to fry, namely a whale named Daley, with the zeal of Captain Ahab. The federal authorities, says Benson, “were trying to get something on people. They went to Michael, to push Michael to say this and that.” Scott, adds Benson, told him that he had met with the FBI but didn’t say what it was about, though Benson suspects it was about more than just selective-enrollment admissions. “I’m not sure how deep the story went,” he says. “He said he couldn’t go into detail, but he had talked to the people. He thought they understood what went down. He said, ‘I think I got it all taken care of.’”
But conspiracy theorists believe that while Scott might not have been worried about the looming legal probes, perhaps other powerful forces were. Those forces feared that Scott’s vast knowledge of the inner workings of City Hall could prove troublesome if he ever cooperated with the feds. “Michael was Daley’s right-hand man,” says Barnett. “Daley trusted Michael with stuff that he wouldn’t trust anyone else with, so people feel [Scott] got into something over his head—something he shouldn’t have known. And once the FBI started looking into stuff of his, folks were afraid it might go too far.”
On top of his legal troubles, Scott had also been struggling financially. Revelations of his worsening financial situation surfaced in the press about a year after his death. The shorthand version: Scott’s involvement in assorted real- estate ventures that failed to pan out—including two multibillion-dollar development projects—and a regrettable investment in a salad-and-soup chain, Salad Creations, left him in dire financial straits.
As with everything in Scott’s life—and death—the full story appears more complicated. To be sure, the housing market crash of 2008 was a tough blow to Scott, a developer. Several projects he was counting on either performed poorly or never got off the ground. But the city’s failure to land the 2016 Summer Olympics was like a hard gut-punch to Scott. “I think Michael was all in on the Olympics,” says a longtime City Hall insider, who asked to remain anonymous. And when Chicago lost out on the games, he continues, it “was like the deathblow.”
It’s unclear how many city-owned lots around Douglas Park Scott and the group of West Side ministers were seeking. Bob Fioretti, the 2nd Ward alderman, recalls that they asked him to sign off on 97 lots in his ward. Scott’s group had also sought several dozen more vacant lots in the wards of former aldermen Ed Smith and Sharon Dixon. Scott denied that he would have profited from the deal. He was simply helping out some folks in his community, he said. But even if he did have skin in the game, the plan was extremely low risk, high reward. Scott and the ministers did not have to put up any money or arrange prefinancing. And at a buck a pop, the up-front costs of the lots were virtually nil. If Chicago had gotten the Olympics, lining up financing would have been a breeze, and the values of the properties would have almost surely gone way up. So, essentially, he didn’t lose anything—other than a golden opportunity.
More significantly, Scott had been working as a consultant with Gerald Fogelson, the prominent developer behind the sprawling Central Station complex, who was vying to build the $1-billion-plus Olympic Village on the former site of Michael Reese Hospital. Scott was also working with Fogelson on an even bigger deal: a proposed $4 billion plan to build a condominium, hotel, and retail project along the lake between Museum Campus and Soldier Field. The development, called Gateway, was complex and highly political in nature, since it involved a controversial land swap between the developers and McPier, the government agency that runs McCormick Place and Navy Pier. As it happened, Scott was on the board of McPier during the negotiations, according to records and interviews.
The full extent of Scott’s involvement with Fogelson’s company is a bit murky. Scott shared office space at Fogelson Properties in the South Loop, and he had a company e-mail account. Fogelson’s company was also paying him $10,000 per month for consulting services, a contract that the company canceled in October 2009 (two weeks before he died), when Chicago’s Olympics bid ended.
Members of Scott’s family say that Scott had an equity stake in the projects beyond his role as a consultant, a claim that Fogelson denies. “He did some consulting for us,” says Fogelson. “But he was primarily my friend.” Scott’s family says Scott’s business ties to Fogelson could have even run deeper. They were shocked, for instance, when Fogelson told Scott’s wife, Diana, after Scott’s death that, in light of what happened, he would forgive a $100,000 loan that Scott hadn’t repaid. Asked about the loan, Fogelson declined to comment, saying only that “there are some things I won’t answer just because they’re personal.”
Either way, Scott’s involvement with Fogelson was a big leap from the kinds of smaller projects that he was used to developing on the West Side—analogous to moving up to the major leagues from PONY leagues. “He saw people were making money,” says the City Hall insider, a former friend of Scott’s. “He got knee-deep with Fogelson. I said to myself, ‘You’re swimming with sharks here.’” The insider also claims that federal prosecutors were at one time looking into Fogelson’s land-swap proposal with McPier and the company’s bid for the Olympic Village. (Samborn wouldn’t comment, except to say, “We don’t confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”)
Scott was working on other business ventures as well. He and a business partner, Phil Gershman, had sunk more than $2 million into their restaurant franchise Salad Creations, yet two out of the three restaurants closed before Scott’s death, and the third closed shortly afterward.
One of Scott’s longtime friends, Phil Krone, a respected political consultant in Chicago who died in August 2010, privately told people that he believed Scott was murdered by Russian mobsters whom Scott had gotten involved with on some West Side real-estate deals. “I know it had to do with those Russians,” Krone told confidants, according to the City Hall insider and Bob Fioretti, both of whom say Krone shared this theory with them. “Phil told me about Michael and the Russians a couple of days after [Scott’s] funeral,” recalls Fioretti, who adds that he has had a fair number of Russian “quote-unquote businessmen” come to see him in recent years about developing property in his ward, which extends into the West Side. “They came out of nowhere,” he says. “They had no banks, no support—all the red flags. You gotta be real skeptical of anybody coming in saying, ‘We don’t need a bank—we have cash.’” Fioretti says he refused to work with them. But did Scott? (A search of property records revealed no connection between Scott and Russian developers. That does not mean that there wasn’t one. Scott could have had a hidden interest in a development project, or projects, that wouldn’t turn up in the property records.)
People who were close to Scott insist that their friend would never take his own life because he was having financial troubles. Scott was a talented problem-solver, they say, and there wasn’t anything, as a savvy operator, he couldn’t forestall or maneuver around somehow. “I’ve never seen anything that suggested that Michael was in such deep financial trouble that he couldn’t figure his way out of,” says Danny Davis. Wallace Davis is more blunt: “So what if he had financial problems. He’d file bankruptcy, Chapter 13. Michael was too intelligent, you understand, to kill himself because he was in debt, or some bullshit like that. Man, please! That’s a joke!”
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