As mayor of Forest Park, Anthony Calderone doubles as liquor commissioner. That is spelled out by state law.

The result is that any company interested in selling liquor in the village needs Calderone to approve an application for a new license. If an application is approved, Calderone also has the power to include it on the village board’s agenda, which he sets prior to each council meeting. When it’s on the agenda, commissioners vote for or against its ratification.  Calderone also votes on the matter.

Between 1999, when Calderone began his mayoralty, and 2010, his political organization accepted at least $27,199.31 in contributions from businesses, and individuals, who sell liquor in the village. This is according to records that his campaign committee, Citizens for Anthony Calderone, filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. The amount includes contributions from liquor establishments in Forest Park, donations from individuals with licenses in the village, and in some cases, from other companies that liquor-licensees also own. 

For instance, Shanahan’s, a restaurant and bar located at 7353 Madison St., donated $3,600 in food to Calderone’s committee for a “reception” in 2002, and $200 for another event in 2006.  The bar is owned by Wexford Inc., which gave his committee $2,100 between 2003 and 2010.  Of that $2,100, Calderone’s committee was supplied with $750 worth of food and drink for events in 2003 and 2004.

“It creates the perception that there is a conflict if…people are contributing money to the official that has the opportunity to vote on the license that they will receive,” said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a non-profit government watchdog group. “It does beg the question of impartiality.”

When asked if he thought there was a conflict, Calderone said, “I don’t think so,” and called the question a “conspiracy theory.”

“Anybody could say that’s a potential conflict of interest,” he said. “You’re going to have to leave that up to the readers.”

“Elected officials need to have a great deal of sensitivity to how potential conflicts of interest are perceived,” Canary said.

She added the following: “The best case is always to build a firewall. Think about your campaign financing and your decision-making and put a wall between your fundraising and the most direct nexus of your decisions.”

“Has Tony Calderone used any campaign contribution to the betterment of any businesses [that made donations] in the past? No,” Calderone said.

Last month, the watchdog group Better Government Association listed several policy recommendations to avoid conflicts of interest following a similar incident in Oak Brook. This was after the group reported that Oak Brook President and Liquor Commissioner John Craig recently accepted $10,000 from a restaurant seeking a liquor license. Craig eventually returned the money, and said it was “improper, inappropriate” to accept it. A related incident involving Craig is currently being examined by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office.

“Elected officials should not be soliciting or accepting campaign contributions from individuals or businesses that they regulate, period,” Bob Herguth, executive director of investigations at the BGA wrote in an e-mail. “There’s too much opportunity for quid pro quo.”

Herguth said he was “speaking in generalities because we don’t know specifically what’s going on in Forest Park.” 

These are some of the policies that BGA recommended Oak Brook and the state enact, where pertinent: ban elected officials from accepting or soliciting campaign donations from businesses or persons governed by the village, separate liquor licenses from the mayor’s job, enact a policy to allow other elected officials to set the village board’s agenda, initiate an independent inquiry to see if elected officials gave municipal contracts to political supporters or friends. 

“The state statute says that the mayor shall serve as the liquor commissioner; that’s not something that Tony Calderone designated,” Calderone said.

According to state board of elections records, Citizens for Calderone has received $7,539 in free food and drink for political events from liquor establishments during his 12 years in office.  These are known as in-kind contributions and typically are given for candidates’ fundraisers or receptions. That amount is part of the larger $27,199 total collected.

Even though several bars donated thousands in food and drink for such events, Calderone said, “If you were to ask me today who’s donating to my campaign, I couldn’t tell you.”

“Tony Calderone knows that he has never, nor would he go and research if someone
made a contribution to my campaign,” he said. 

Commissioner Marty Tellalian, Calderone’s only opponent in the April 5 mayoral election, said “I don’t think it’s appropriate,” when asked about the donations to Calderone.

“I’m uncomfortable taking donations from businesses that have liquor licenses,”
Tellalian said. “I won’t do it.”

According to campaign finance records filed on Jan. 19, Calderone’s committee had $37,291 in hand; and, as of Jan. 18, Tellalian had $601.

Note, though, that Tellalian held a fundraiser after this filing date.

Tellalian also said that Illinois’ laws on political contributions were troublesome.

“It’s unfortunate that Illinois’ campaign laws are some of the weakest in the country,” he said. “That leads to the problems we have.”

But, both Tellalian and Calderone said the village actively polices liquor establishments, to make sure that the laws are adhered to.  For example, the village conducts police stings in bars to root out, and penalize, the establishments that are serving underage drinkers, they said.

Calderone said that, in the past, he has “held disciplinary hearings” involving the owners of liquor establishments that have been accused of running afoul of the laws.

In his 12-year mayoralty, he said there’s been “one, or more than one,” instance in which a bar was fined. This rarely happens, he said, because most of the bar owners follow the rules.

“As long as you’re acting with some form of decorum they [village] don’t really bother you,” said Scott Burns, owner of the Beacon Pub, 101 Circle Ave.  Burns has never made a donation to Calderone.

“I can see where the perception could be there,” he said, when asked if the donations to Calderone created any conflict, adding, “Nobody’s asked for anything.”

“I believe that citizens and business owners have the American right to support candidates that are running for office,” Calderone said.

He called that same “right” a “God-given” one.