Entangled in Chicago bureaucracy that shut down his iconic Pilsen bar after a gang-style shooting outside, the owner of Harbee Liquors did the same thing troubled business owners throughout Chicago have done for decades.
He enlisted the help of his local alderman.
In this case that alderman was Daniel Solis, who before leaving office last year was among the most influential politicians in Chicago. He chaired a powerful City Council committee and built his 25th Ward office into a center of Latino power politics during more than two decades on the council.
Just a couple months after Solis intervened with city bureaucrats on Harbee’s behalf, the taps were once again flowing at the popular bar. Grateful, Harbee owner Steven Frytz wrote $2,000 in checks for a Solis fundraiser.
“I literally thought, well, thank God I’m good with my license. I better give him a lot, so I’m on the radar,” Frytz said during a series of interviews. “If I support whoever is in power, I am going to be able to survive or at least have an ear.
“It’s a tough world out there.”
That spring in 2016 — after the bar reopened and he offered the contributions — Frytz also hired one of Solis’ top lieutenants to moonlight as a bouncer at Harbee.
It was a side job that would help launch a new career in private security for a longtime top Solis aide, Francisco Lassio.
Over the next two years, Lassio continued to moonlight as a Harbee bouncer and went on to accept another side job at a politically connected private security firm where business took a turn for the better.
Even as he worked as a security guard for Blue Line Security Solutions, Lassio kept his city job as Solis’ director of city services and later as chief of staff, where he was repeatedly involved in getting city permits for festivals that hired Blue Line to keep the peace, according to a Better Government Association/WBEZ investigation.
Both Lassio and an attorney for Blue Line Security said his dual roles as a public servant and private security guard posed no conflict of interest, and that he did nothing wrong.
“If you’re saying there’s a correlation of hiring somebody from the community who also works in government that works as a part time, low-paid security officer, that is the worst payback scheme I’ve ever seen in my life,” said attorney Frank Avila, who represents Blue Line. “If Mr. Lassio did something wrong, it has nothing to do with Blue Line Security Solutions.”
The revelations about the inner workings of the 25th Ward office come as federal investigators in Chicago are cracking down on a culture of self dealing that permeates Illinois politics. The corruption probe has already involved state lawmakers, suburban elected officials and aldermen, including Solis himself.
The BGA/WBEZ investigation found no evidence the help Solis gave to Harbee is part of the ongoing federal investigation.
Still, an examination of hundreds of pages of records and more than a dozen interviews shows that Lassio began building his new career at a time when Solis was in serious trouble with federal corruption authorities. The FBI has detailed in public documents Solis’ longtime pattern of shakedowns in which the alderman traded official acts for personal gain — including political contributions, freebies and even prostitution.
Solis has not been charged, but federal court records show he worked as a federal informant, secretly recording other elected officials as part of the sweeping investigation targeting a pervasive world of corruption where political connections run deep, power is often sold for cash and jobs are traded like currency to reward the loyal.
One aspect of the sprawling federal investigation centers on how Solis was secretly recorded by federal authorities trying to drum up legal work for the private law firm of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Lassio worked in Solis’ ward office for more than a decade, serving as the alderman’s director of city services and later his chief of staff. After Solis got in trouble and left office this past spring, Lassio pivoted but never strayed far from intersections with the government. In addition to his security work, Lassio took a job as a community relations specialist for public utility giant Peoples Gas in April, a spokeswoman for the utility confirmed, and records show he registered as a lobbyist in July 2019.
Danisha Hall, director of corporate communications for Peoples Gas, declined to answer specific questions about how Lassio was hired, citing privacy laws, only saying the job was publicly posted and his selection was part of a “competitive” process. She said the company is “not aware” of any federal contact with its employees.
The BGA and WBEZ reported last year that another utility giant, Commonwealth Edison, was subpoenaed by federal authorities investigating its political hires, and WBEZ later reported how authorities are investigating potential links between those hires and regulatory favors.
“I’d be happy to support them”
The saga of how a bar owner got help from an alderman began on the night of Sept. 21, 2014 when a 23-year-old man with a gunshot wound to his chest stumbled into Harbee looking for help.
According to Frytz, the bar doorman on duty that night didn’t notice the bullet wound, kicked out the wounded man who police later identified as a gang member, and then neglected to call 911.
The transgression earned Harbee and its owner a city citation for failure to report the incident to authorities, records show. It began a bureaucratic battle with City Hall that Frytz fought for more than a year.
Then, on Dec. 15, 2015, the bar’s local liquor license expired, records show. Frytz said he was unable to renew it with the cloud of the citation from the shooting incident still pending. That’s when Frytz closed the bar, and Solis began offering his help.
On Dec. 17 — the same day Frytz officially closed Harbee — Solis penned a letter to city officials that encouraged them to allow the bar to renew its good standing. Frytz said he believes his attorney requested the letter from Solis.
“Please be advised that I am in support to the reissuance of a liquor license to Harbee Liquors, Inc.,” Solis wrote on his ward letterhead. “Mr. Steven Frytz has been an owner that always complies with what the city requires. I have never received complaints against this business and I hope they can renew their license.”
Such letters of support from aldermen, especially one as powerful as Solis, have historically been key pieces of correspondence in Chicago that serve as the grease to loosen the machinery of city government. The letters often streamline government regulations, overcome bureaucratic red tape and facilitate action.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has promised to check such aldermanic prerogatives, saying it facilitates the type of corruption federal authorities are now pursuing.
About a month after Solis wrote the letter to City Hall, he also took a public stand on Harbee’s behalf. A neighborhood news site quoted Solis pledging to intervene with the city on Frytz’s behalf to help reopen the bar. “They were a very good bar and I’d be happy to support them,” Solis was quoted in the DNAinfo story.
Frytz said he also got a call from Solis.
“This is Alderman Solis,” Frytz recalled the alderman saying. “I want you to know I heard about your problem and I support you. And I was like, ‘Thank you very much,’” Frytz said.
After Solis’ intervention, Frytz’s troubles at City Hall evaporated, records show.
By February, Frytz had obtained his new city liquor license, the violation case was resolved and Harbee reopened in March.
In April, Frytz wrote checks for $2,000 to Solis’ campaign fund, according to campaign records. That was in addition to the $10,000 he contributed a year earlier after first receiving the citation from the city. He said all those contributions came after he was invited to Solis fundraisers.
Records show Frytz has contributed about $30,000 to Solis’ political accounts since 2011. The bulk of the contributions came after the city cited the bar for such things as hiring a minor and selling alcohol to a minor, according to city records.
Frytz said all his contributions to Solis coincide with fundraisers to which he was invited, and were not offered in exchange for help at City Hall. “It’s better to be OK with this guy because he’s a force now,” Frytz said.
After he reopened the bar, Frytz also hired Lassio as a bouncer in April 2016, he said. Frytz said he had no idea at the time that Lassio was a top Solis ward employee. He said giving a job to Lassio was not payback to Solis, and that he felt no pressure to make the hire.
“For me it was just finding a dependable person,” Frytz said. “I am selfish and want to keep patrons safe.”
Lassio told the BGA and WBEZ he worked alongside Solis at the 25th Ward office in Pilsen for 15 years. As director of city services, his job was to work with business people and constituents in the ward who needed things from city government, from pothole repair to permits.
Lassio said his hiring at Harbee had no connection to his role as a Solis’ aide and that he never mentioned his city job to Frytz prior to being hired at the bar.
“(Frytz) and I had a simple conversation where I went into the bar, as a patron, and he came up to me because we had been friends before,” Lassio said.
“He didn’t know I worked for the city,” Lassio said. “I never identified myself as a city employee when I first started coming into his business. I never said, you know, like I work for Solis, nothing like that. It wasn’t until later, within time that I started knowing him.”
For the next two years Lassio greeted Harbee patrons at the door and kept troublemakers out of the bar, Frytz said. Lassio’s two jobs never intersected during those years, the bar owner said.
But in the summer of 2018 the relationship changed when Solis’ longtime chief of staff landed a high-ranking job with the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. Lassio was promoted to Solis’ chief of staff and informed Frytz he could no longer work as a bouncer.
Instead, Frytz said, Lassio took on a managerial role finding and managing a crew of bouncers for the bar. He said he paid Lassio up to $200 each month.
“I would pay him at the end of the month,” Frytz said. “Nothing, for what he had to do.”
Lassio also began taking steps to become a security guard in 2018. While he was Solis’ chief of staff, records show, Lassio completed firearm training and registered with the state to become a full-fledged security officer in July that year.
And, while still Solis’ chief of staff, he began working for a security company owned by yet another high-powered family in Latino politics, that of Edward “Eddie” Acevedo, the one-time highest ranking Latino in the Illinois House of Representatives.
The relationship between Solis and the Acevedo family goes back decades.
Both families rose to power in the 1990’s with the help of the controversial Hispanic Democratic Organization, which was loyal to Richard M. Daley until it was shut down in 2008 amid a federal investigation into patronage hiring.
Eddie Acevedo’s brother Manuel was running Blue Line in early 2018 when Lassio said he was recruited to work for the company. At the time, he was still a bouncer at Harbee, he said. That summer, Blue Line won work providing security at the three Pilsen outdoor festivals managed by event organizer Fernando Nieto, according to Nieto.
Nieto said he had no idea when he first hired Blue Line in 2018 that Solis’ chief of staff was working there as a security guard. He said he first became aware of Lassio’s side job when he saw him working security at the 2018 Chicago Michelada Fest.
“I was like, oh, I didn’t know that he had worked with the company,” Nieto said. “It never got awkward for us, because no one ever pushed us to hire them.”
Nieto said 2018 was the company’s first year working security at any of his festivals.
Wearing a wire
By January 2019, Solis largely disappeared from public life after his role as a federal cooperator became public. He stopped attending City Council meetings and gave up his committee chairmanship. Until then, he had been secretly recording conversations with other aldermen for more than two years, according to federal court records.
Solis did not return messages for this story seeking comment.
In Solis’ absence, Lassio became the highest-ranking authority in the ward. In that role, Lassio said, he routinely met with festival organizers who needed ward approval for their neighborhood events.
Lassio said he worked with Solis during his absence, issuing letters of support the organizers needed in order to win city approval. At the same time, his other employer, Blue Line, was listed on festival applications as the security contractor for at least five festivals –– including the three run by Nieto.
Lassio said he had no conflict because the festival organizers never worked through him to hire Blue Line.
“The contracts as far as the security, those were not obtained by me,” Lassio said. “That would be a conflict of interest. But they were not obtained by me.”
Asked how he came to be hired at Blue Line, Lassio said he was recruited by a company manager, Jose Roberto Maldonado, in the early months of 2018.
“He would go to one of the bars I would go to,” Lassio said of Maldonado. “He asked me, you know, ‘What other jobs do you do?’ I was like, I only do certain bars. He asked me, ‘Do you want to be involved maybe in doing armed security? It pays more.’ I said, yes.”
Records show that Manuel Acevedo has been in the security business since 2005, but under three different names.
In 2010, his security firm was sued for negligence following the 2009 shooting death of a 17-year-old at a Logan Square concert. According to the suit, the security company failed to adequately secure the event. Acevedo denied his company was negligent in any way, and the case ended in a cash settlement of $400,000 to the victim’s family, records show.
Another Acevedo security business made headlines following disclosures that it was hired to guard the United Neighborhood Organization charter schools. Acevedo’s security firm was paid with funds from a $98 million state grant approved by Illinois lawmakers –– including his brother Eddie. UNO was co-founded by Solis in the 1980s and it became a political force in Chicago under his leadership before he became alderman in 1996.
Acevedo established Blue Line Security Solutions in 2017, months after his brother retired from the Illinois House, records show.
“We look after each other”
Some of Blue Line’s partners have had troubles of their own. Acevedo was fired from his job as commander of investigations and intelligence at the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2007 after he was arrested following a brawl at a South Florida bar that refused to admit his nephew, Eddie Acevedo’s son. All six charges against him, including battery on a law enforcement officer, were later dropped after he issued a written apology, according to prosecutors.
That same year, records show, he was fined $4,500 by Illinois state regulators for providing security services before his company was fully licensed.
Maldonado, another Blue Line partner, became temporarily ineligible to be a security guard in Illinois because of a 2015 ruling by a state licensing agency that concluded he repeatedly misrepresented himself as a police officer, including once in 2011 in which he pulled a gun during a dispute and then identified himself as law enforcement when police arrived. His license has not been renewed.
In 2017, he lost a job as a suburban police chief following a drunk driving arrest. The charges were later dropped by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
Both Edward and Manuel Acevedo declined comment, as did Maldonado.
Avila, the attorney representing Maldonado and Blue Line Security, said Lassio’s position as chief of staff had no impact on the work the firm got at festivals in Pilsen. He described Lassio’s role in the ward office as being that of a “low-level bureaucrat who doesn’t have any authority or say.”
“Mr. Lassio knew that Mr. Solis was going,” Avila said. “People have known that for a while. And he has to get employment elsewhere … So Mr. Maldonado knew that Mr. Lassio was a person that knew and was liked by the community.”
Lassio said he ultimately was just trying to figure out his future at a time when his boss had disappeared from the public eye.
“I have two little girls,” Lassio said. “So that’s why I need to find a job for and who I need to live for and move forward for. So that was pretty much my focus.”
Since leaving the ward office last spring, after a new alderman was elected, Lassio said he has transitioned to his new life in the security industry.
He continues to be the head of security for Harbee, where the bouncers he manages sometimes work for Blue Line.
“I call the guys and if the guys want to do it, or they want to work it, they do. If they don’t, they don’t,” Lassio said. He added, “It’s kind of how we look after each other within that security community.”
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter at @mizamudio. Alejandra Cancino is a reporter for the Better Government Association. You can follow her on Twitter at @WriterAlejandra.