A federal law often used to attack organized crime syndicates and interstate business scams has been leveled by a Chicago-area pizzeria owner against village officials he thinks are making a grab for his land.
Tod Curtis has launched a civil racketeering lawsuit aimed at Mt. Prospect Mayor Irvana Wilks, other municipal employees and local real estate developer Errol Oztekin, alleging that they have formed an "ongoing enterprise and scheme" for nearly a decade to force him out of Ye Olde Town Inn, which he has owned for 41 years.
Village officials said they regard Curtis' racketeering charges as absurd. Village Manager Michael Janonis called the conspiracy claims "the stuff of Oliver Stone movies."
Federal racketeering statutes are the jackhammers of American law. Criminal racketeering cases have been used to help break up brutal street gangs and outlaw motorcycle clubs. They also are often used to help people who have been harmed by organized criminal activity collect damages, with a special clause that a winning plaintiff is eligible for triple what he or she would be due in a regular lawsuit.
Curtis' civil lawsuit is a highly unusual, long-shot use of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, according to University of Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey, who helped draft the 1970 law. Curtis said he felt he didn't have another choice.
The defendants have a vendetta against him, Curtis believes. They want to tear down his downtown building and use the property as the cornerstone of a revitalized entertainment district, cutting him out of the deal in the process, he said.
Curtis wants to develop the land himself into a seven-story commercial and residential complex.
"I don't feel well being intimidated," Curtis, a former Marine, said while sitting in his darkened restaurant on a recent morning. "It doesn't sit well with me."
Oztekin, a Mt. Prospect dentist and a partner in the company that the village has tapped to redevelop the area, doesn't fancy himself the intimidating type.
"I don't have a racket. I'm a dentist who owns a couple restaurants," Oztekin said.
But Curtis believes the village and the developers had long-standing plans to acquire his building and lowball him on the price. Oztekin offered $1.4 million in December 2006 for the building, but Curtis refused to sell. After that, Curtis said, there was a sudden increase in inspections that turned up violations at Ye Olde Town Inn where there had not been problems before.
"They were targeting me because I wouldn't play ball," Curtis said.
The pizzeria owner said he had spent more than $550,000 to bring the kitchen up to code, only to learn in 2007 that the village was planning to condemn the building and allow Oztekin to go ahead with an entertainment district that included his property.
The village has begun condemnation proceedings, which Curtis is fighting.
Curtis is having the building appraised, said his attorney, Richard Valentino. But he won't willingly part with Ye Olde Town Inn. In 2008, he filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging the defendants violated his civil rights and committed racketeering offenses, including a pattern of attempted extortion, mail fraud and intimidation.
Wilks, the Mt. Prospect mayor, did not return calls for comment about the lawsuit.
Village Atty. Everette "Buzz" Hill said the village has always dealt fairly with Curtis' proposals for developing the land. Officials resorted to building code violations and court action against Ye Olde Town Inn only after "the friendly, coaxing approach" failed to prompt Curtis to make improvements.
The entertainment district is on hold, Hill said, because of the economic downturn. The two sides are due back in federal court next month.