When an FBI raid targeted his company’s county commissioner last year, southwest suburban factory owner Zach Mottl was “ecstatic.”
“I felt like the house fell on the wicked witch,” Mottl said. “That’s what I felt like. And we were free. The munchkins were free.”
Mottl said he felt a target of the raid — Democratic Cook County Commissioner and village of McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski — had pressured him into making a campaign contribution at the same time his company was seeking Tobolski’s backing for a critical property tax break.
And Mottl provided the Better Government Association and WBEZ with an exchange of emails that detail his story.
Tobolski has not been charged with any wrongdoing and continues to serve in his dual elected positions. He declined to comment on the emails he sent to Mottl in 2018.
At that time, Mottl’s Atlas Tool & Die Works, a fourth-generation family business in Lyons, was applying for a tax break from Cook County under a program that’s meant to help preserve jobs at struggling manufacturing plants.
While the tax break application was pending before county officials, Tobolski pressed Mottl to arrange for Atlas to contribute to his campaign fund, according to the emails Mottl provided to the BGA and WBEZ.
In one email sent from his personal account, Tobolski suggested to Mottl that Atlas contribute to his campaign fund annually — and budget for the expense as if it were a “fixed cost” of doing business.
The tax break for the factory could be worth up to $870,000 over 12 years. The county board approved it after Atlas cut a $750 check to Tobolski’s political campaign, records show.
In the past few months, federal agents have conducted a series of raids at the Illinois Capitol and in several southwest suburbs, including Tobolski’s office at the McCook village hall. Prosecutors have leveled corruption charges against some of the biggest names in local and state politics, and many others are under investigation.
Last Friday, Tobolski’s chief of staff at the county board, Patrick Doherty, was indicted in a red-light camera bribery scheme.
But amid all the ongoing corruption probes, it remains rare for people who run businesses to complain publicly about alleged unethical behavior by elected officials.
Mottl himself is no political neophyte. He’s been a village trustee in Burr Ridge and last year lost a bid for mayor of that suburb, where he lives. He and his company have been major political contributors for years, and Mottl heads a political action committee that represents factories like Atlas.
Still, Mottl said he did not want to make the contribution to Tobolski — but felt he had to pony up because his company’s tax break application remained in limbo.
“I definitely felt pressure,” said Mottl, 41. “And I felt like, you know, ‘You gotta play ball with this guy.’”
‘We were bleeding cash’
Atlas was founded in Chicago in 1918 by Mottl’s great-grandfather, a Bohemian immigrant.
For the past six decades, the factory has pumped out metal parts in a sprawling, single-story building in Lyons, a blue-collar community in Tobolski’s county board district.
Mottl works there with his two sisters and their father, Atlas’ chief executive officer. Atlas has made signs for Macy’s department store, coat racks, high-tech medical equipment and components for military jets and missiles.
But like many tool-and-die companies, the business began to struggle about 20 years ago due to changes in the U.S. economy and increased competition from China. The Great Recession of 2008 made Atlas’ financial troubles worse.
“We were bleeding cash pretty badly,” Mottl said.
Despite these challenges, the Mottl family decided to stay put in Lyons while many competitors closed or moved abroad. They worked to get new business in the defense and medical industries, took out loans and dipped into their savings.
Then, in May 2017, the county’s initial assessed value for the Atlas factory jumped 70 percent, which could have meant a significant increase in the company’s property taxes. In addition to appealing the assessment, Atlas also sought a special tax break from Cook County.
The company filed an application under the county’s “Class 6b Sustainable Emergency Relief” program in July 2017. The program is meant to preserve manufacturing jobs and create new ones.
In October 2017, Mottl said he met with Tobolski because Atlas needed county board approval for the tax break and Tobolski’s sponsorship was integral.
During the discussion, Mottl said he noted his position as head of a political action committee that represents Illinois’ tooling and manufacturing businesses and told Tobolski the PAC contributes to politicians who support their interests. The group has never made any contributions to Tobolski.
Mottl said Tobolski pledged his support for Atlas’ tax break at their meeting, but months passed without the measure being approved.
In February 2018, Mottl received an email from Tobolski. But the commissioner did not mention the pending tax break request in his message.
‘Let’s do this’
Instead, Tobolski told Mottl he had expected a contribution to his campaign fund, according to the email exchange provided by Mottl.
“Hey Zach,” Tobolski wrote to Mottl. “We met back in October of 2017. You indicated a great willingness to support. I was hoping this was an over site [sic] and I could count on Atlas for a bronze sponsorship? I would greatly appreciate that!”
In a recent interview with WBEZ and the BGA, Mottl said he believed Tobolski sent that message because he had not replied to an invitation to a campaign fundraiser for the commissioner.
Mottl said he did not tell Tobolski he would contribute to him at their October 2017 meeting. But he did not think he could afford to ignore Tobolski’s personal fundraising appeal this time. So he quickly responded.
“Hello Jeff,” Mottl wrote back two hours later. “I received the invite but the timing of the event was bad for me to support. As I also told you in our meeting, we have been in a very tight spot financially at Atlas. We got in the hole pretty bad over the last decade and had to take on a lot of debt. While, the overall future is very bright and we will get out of this, we continue to go through periods where it’s pretty painful.”
Tobolski was undeterred. Just a few hours later, he wrote to Mottl again.
“Let’s do this,” Tobolski wrote later that night. “I only have 2 events per year. Can I count on Atlas for a $350 hole sponsor at the golf outing each year? This way it’s a fixed cost.”
The outing was coming up on Aug. 21, 2018, Tobolski told Mottl.
“That’s all I ask,” Tobolski wrote.
Mottl now says he had hoped his first reply would have discouraged Tobolski and he felt surprised that the commissioner kept pressing for a contribution.
He also said he was taken aback by Tobolski’s use of the term “fixed cost” to describe campaign contributions. “Fixed cost” typically refers to a necessary expense of doing business.
At the same time, Mottl said he realized the leverage Tobolski held over him and his family’s fortunes.
“I also know he’s the commissioner who is supposed to be sponsoring my tax credit that hasn’t been approved yet,” Mottl said in an interview at the Atlas factory.
He said he thought to himself, “I don’t want to miss the opportunity to save what could be $700,000, $600,000 over 10, 12 years. That’s a lot of money.”
There was no explicit quid pro quo spelled out in Tobolski’s emails.
All the same, Mottl said he felt he was being squeezed.
“He didn’t say specifically, ‘If you don’t give me my donation, you’re not getting your tax credit,’” he said. “But I had the feeling this was an important thing.”
Mottl promised Tobolski in an email response that he would make a campaign contribution soon. Mottl sounded like he was eager to contribute, though he now says he did not really want to give the money.
“Jeff, I’m happy to help any time that I am able,” Mottl wrote. “Count on me for that August golf event … It’s just got to be when I have more cash on hand and am not literally sweating payroll.
“Please understand it’s not that I’m unwilling to support. I have given and will continue to give money to candidates but I can’t underscore enough how literally we are running on fumes at times and every single dollar matters to me those weeks.”
A job-saving move
Mottl provided WBEZ and BGA with records showing Atlas sent a $750 check to the Friends of Jeffrey Tobolski campaign committee on July 20, 2018.
Campaign records show the Tobolski political fund reported receiving Atlas’ contribution on Sept. 30, 2018, 18 days after the county board approved the legislation granting a tax break to Atlas.
Atlas was one of eight companies given that status at the same county board meeting.
“The companies receiving these incentives have demonstrated their commitment to our communities and residents,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said in a statement issued at the time. “I’m pleased that we are able to use our tax incentive tools to either keep or expand businesses in Cook County.”
According to the county, the tax break for Atlas was meant to preserve 66 full-time jobs and create 18 new ones.
Atlas is using the money to expand its plant, buy new equipment and train employees, Mottl said.
“It’s not like I’m putting it in my pocket or buying a new yacht,” he said.
Before the county approved the tax break, Atlas also needed backing from village officials in Lyons. And they only signed off after Atlas agreed to pay the village $54,000 through 2021, ostensibly to offset the loss of tax dollars they would use on police, fire and other village services.
FBI raids in the suburbs
A little over a year after Atlas’ tax break was approved, on Sept. 26, federal agents targeted Tobolski in a raid on McCook’s village hall.
The search warrant used in the raid on the tiny, heavily industrial suburb (population 228) sought a long list of documents about Tobolski, his top county board aide and even the heating and air conditioning at Tobolski’s house.
For more than two months after the raid, Tobolski skipped county board meetings and did not return calls from reporters.
He has since re-emerged, running a meeting at McCook Village Hall earlier this month.
After the brief meeting, Tobolski declined to answer questions about the federal investigation or discuss his interactions with Mottl and Atlas. He referred reporters to his lawyer, David Sterba, who did not return calls.
Tobolski said he has no plans to quit either of his elected posts. Only a conviction would force him out of office.
And Tobolski said federal authorities raided McCook Village Hall in 2012, but no charges came of that.
“If there is something that requires me to step down, I’ll be the first person to do that,” Tobolski told WBEZ and the BGA. “But right now, there’s nothing.”
‘Like old-school Chicago politics’
Zach Mottl said his initial euphoria over the raid abated when nobody was arrested immediately.
But the law-enforcement activity, he said, emboldened him to tell his story. He said he knows it’s unusual for someone in his position to talk openly about the kind of experience he had with his company’s county commissioner.
“Most business owners don’t know who to talk to, don’t know what to do,” Mottl said. “They get quiet, they shut up. They think they’ve done something wrong and they’re afraid.”
In his own role as a village official, Mottl said he would not ask for a campaign contribution from a business owner who comes to him asking for help because he sees such behavior as “very, very unethical.”
He hopes the ongoing federal probes lead to elusive reform in a state notorious for its culture of graft and greed.
“I love Illinois,” he said. “I’m born and raised here. I want to keep my business here. I want to stay here.
“But this corruption adds a cost. It harms the state. So that’s why I’m talking to you.”
Casey Toner is an investigator with the Better Government Association. Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ.