The operators of one of Chicago’s most successful restaurants stand accused of misusing federal pandemic-relief funds for personal use, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court alleged that the management company of Maple & Ash restaurant diverted some of the millions of dollars they got from Washington during the COVID-19 pandemic and used that money instead for country club dues and private jets.
A lawyer for the restaurant says the lawsuit is baseless.
Federal records from the Paycheck Protection Program show Maple & Ash in Chicago and another Maple & Ash restaurant in Arizona received a total of more than $7.6 million in PPP funds.
The massive PPP program — which began soon after the pandemic was declared three years ago — has been plagued with fraud. In Chicago and Cook County, public employees at several local-government agencies are accused of setting up sham side businesses to collect PPP funds, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times have reported.
But the lawyer for Maple & Ash co-founder James Lasky denied the accusations in the court case that was filed on Monday. The lawyer, Doug Wexler, said the claims of PPP fraud at the restaurant were unfounded.
“The plaintiffs’ attorney likes to make up stuff,” Wexler told WBEZ, adding that he would have more to say about the matter in court on Monday.
The new lawsuit stems from a long-running legal dispute between Lasky and other investors in the restaurant. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Michael Forde, declined to comment.
Maple & Ash is a steakhouse in the Gold Coast neighborhood. It recorded the highest total sales of any restaurant in Chicago and is the fourth-highest-grossing restaurant in the country, raking in about $30 million a year in sales, according to the Restaurant Business trade publication. The sister restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, came in 12th in those national rankings for 2022.
Federal data from the PPP forgivable loan initiative shows the Maple & Ash restaurant in Chicago got $1.9 million in April 2020 and another $2 million the following year, while the sister restaurant in Scottsdale received $1.71 million in 2020 and $2 million in 2021 from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s program.
Public records show the initial PPP funding to the Chicago restaurant was intended to help preserve 220 jobs after the pandemic forced many businesses to close temporarily.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.