The billionaire behind the scenes in White Sox stadium plan

If the White Sox succeed in getting the city and state to build them a new home on ‘The 78’ site in the South Loop, this little-known Iraqi-British billionaire stands to profit.

White Sox ballpark rendering
A rendering of a proposed new White Sox ballpark at The 78. Related Midwest is the developer, but the tract’s main owner is Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi-British billionaire whose past includes two criminal convictions, one in France and the other in Iraq. Courtesy of Related Midwest
White Sox ballpark rendering
A rendering of a proposed new White Sox ballpark at The 78. Related Midwest is the developer, but the tract’s main owner is Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi-British billionaire whose past includes two criminal convictions, one in France and the other in Iraq. Courtesy of Related Midwest

The billionaire behind the scenes in White Sox stadium plan

If the White Sox succeed in getting the city and state to build them a new home on ‘The 78’ site in the South Loop, this little-known Iraqi-British billionaire stands to profit.

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For two decades, an Iraqi-British billionaire who once was barred from entering the United States has been trying to develop 62 acres he owns along the Chicago River south of the Loop.

Each time, Nadhmi Shakir Auchi has run into political and legal roadblocks. Some involved his partners. Others centered on his past — which includes two criminal convictions, one in France, the other in Iraq.

So Auchi’s land, south of Roosevelt Road and west of Clark Street, has remained vacant under four mayors — Richard M. Daley, Rahm Emanuel, Lori Lightfoot and Brandon Johnson. Plans to build there — a huge housing development, then a headquarters for Amazon and recently a casino — all fizzled.

Now, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has eyes on building a new baseball stadium on the site, with stunning views of the Loop. And he’s hoping the city of Chicago and state of Illinois will help pay for it.

Reinsdorf’s plans have been all over the news. But Auchi, 86, has remained in the background.

Auchi won’t talk about the property or the proposal for a new Sox stadium.

His London attorneys have directed such questions to his property manager, Related Companies, which paid $10 million in 2016 to buy a stake in the land.

Related is a national development company founded by billionaire Stephen Ross, who built Hudson Yards in New York City and owns the Miami Dolphins. Ross didn’t respond to an interview request about Auchi, who lives in London.

Related Midwest — Ross’ Chicago office — is run by Curt Bailey, who declined interview requests regarding Auchi and his financial relationship with Related, saying in a text message: “I appreciate your diligence but have no comment at this time.”

Related’s website — which features drawings of the Sox stadium and of a proposed technology center that the University of Illinois plans to build on an acre donated by a company managed by Auchi’s son-in-law and Related — doesn’t mention Auchi. It’s unclear whether Auchi signed off on giving the land to the U. of I.

Artist renderings of the proposed stadium also are featured on the website of Auchi’s company, General Mediterranean Holdings. It directs people to Related’s website, which calls the project “The 78,” proclaiming the property would become Chicago’s 78th neighborhood.

It’s unclear whether Related company officials have discussed Auchi’s ownership of the land with the University of Illinois. Reinsdorf is aware of the relationship between Related and Auchi but does not know the details of that relationship, according to a Sox spokesperson who said Reinsdorf has never met or spoken to Auchi.

U.S. denied Auchi a visa

In 2005, Auchi’s attempts to enter the United States were blocked when the State Department refused him a visa as he was preparing to invest in the land, which was owned at the time by Tony Rezko, a political fixer for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Rezko later went to prison, convicted in a kickback scheme involving state deals, and Auchi bought out Rezko, who needed the money for his legal bills.

The State Department also rejected Auchi’s later attempt at a visa in 2014. In both 2005 and 2014, the State Department cited unspecified “crimes of moral turpitude” as the reason for rejecting Auchi’s visa requests, according to court records.

Federal officials never revealed why they rejected Auchi’s visa application, which happened after a French court convicted him of fraud in an oil scandal. He was fined and sentenced to prison for 15 months, though the sentence was suspended and he never did any time in that case.

Auchi did serve two years in prison after he and 76 others — including Saddam Hussein, at the time a young member of Iraq’s Ba’ath Party — were convicted of attempting to assassinate Iraq’s prime minister in 1959. Hussein was sentenced to hang but fled the country. He was Iraq’s president from 1979 to 2003, when the United States and its allies invaded Iraq. Hussein was captured by U.S. troops and executed in 2006 in Iraq for crimes against humanity.

“Mr. Auchi never met or spoke to Saddam Hussein,” Auchi’s attorneys said in a two-page letter in response to questions from the Chicago Sun-Times. “He had no business or other relationship with Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was in fact responsible for murdering one of Mr. Auchi’s brothers, and our client was himself imprisoned, beaten and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s regime.”

Saddam Hussein shouting with arm raised
Saddam Hussein argues with the chief judge while testifying during his trial in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2006. The former Iraqi president and seven co-defendants went on trial for torture, illegal arrests and the killing of nearly 150 people from Dujail after a 1982 assassination attempt on Hussein. Jacob Silberberg / Associated Press

How Auchi came upon ‘The 78’ tract

To learn more about Auchi’s ownership of the property where Reinsdorf is pushing to build a taxpayer-financed stadium, the Sun-Times examined city and county records and two depositions the billionaire gave in a federal lawsuit filed by Semir Sirazi, Rezko’s former financier.

When Auchi became interested in the land that at one point was known as “the 62-acre site,” it was primarily owned by Rezko and Daniel Mahru. Their company Rezmar Corp. focused on rehabilitating apartments for low-income residents — and bankrolling politicians, primarily minorities, including then-4th Ward Ald. Toni Preckwinkle, now president of the Cook County Board, and Barack Obama during his early political career.

Rezmar expanded its sights in February 2002, buying the 62-acre railyard for $72.3 million from Joseph Cacciatore and Robert Wislow, politically clout-heavy developers who maintained a stake in the property that links the South Loop to Chinatown.

Rezmar proposed building a housing and commercial development there that would include an Ikea store. But its plans never came to fruition, largely because the property lacks roads, sewers and other infrastructure.

Realizing the difficulty of developing the land, Mahru wanted to sell it for $175 million to Felix Sater, a Russia-born developer involved in Donald Trump’s plans for a proposed skyscraper in Moscow.

Tony Rezko outside the federal courthouse
Tony Rezko outside the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago in 2008. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

But Rezko had a different buyer in mind: Auchi, an Iraq-born billionaire who had been living in London since Hussein took power. It was months after Auchi had been convicted of fraud in 2003 for his role in French oil company Elf Aquitaine’s purchase of Spanish refineries in the early 1990s.

“Our client flatly and categorically denies any wrongdoing in relation to the Elf Aquitaine case,” Auchi’s attorneys said. “He had no knowledge of how Elf dealt with the relevant funds that he had provided.”

As Rezko and Auchi discussed the railyard investment, Auchi flew to Chicago in April 2004 to attend a reception at the Four Seasons Hotel and a dinner at Rezko’s Wilmette mansion. Obama was among the guests at both events.

“Tony invited me to go there and also to see the land, and, at the same time for him, it was important that a big company like ours is coming there, so this will encourage even the responsible people there to see who are the investors,” Auchi said in sworn testimony he gave in a deposition on Dec. 5, 2012, in London.

Auchi sought to visit Chicago again in May 2005, but the State Department refused to give him a visa even after he contacted the U.S. Embassy in London and Blagojevich wrote a letter on his behalf, court records show.

“It was not given to me,” Auchi said in the deposition. “After that, I did not ask for any visa to the United States.”

Auchi, Rezko reach a deal

In November 2005, Rezko and Auchi completed the deal. Auchi paid $131 million for a 50% stake in the land, and lent Rezko $4 million to buy out Mahru.

Over the next several months, Auchi got three offers to sell some or all of the property for as much as $161 million. He turned down all of them.

Auchi and Rezko met in London in October 2006. Two days later, a federal grand jury indicted Rezko, accusing him of taking kickbacks on state deals under Blagojevich. Auchi testified in a deposition in July 2014 in the Sirazi lawsuit that he feared Rezko’s criminal case would hinder development of the land. He decided to buy out Rezko.

“If he remains in the project, they will not be able to cooperate with us and give us the licenses we need,” Auchi said in that sworn testimony.

Rezko agreed to sell and directed that $3.5 million be paid to his lawyers. Auchi also made payments to Rezko’s wife and relatives and forgave more than $26 million in loans Rezko owed, court records show.

Auchi’s connections to Rezko appear to have ended in October 2016, when the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals ordered him and his companies to pay nearly $17.4 million in damages to Sirazi, who prevailed in his suit that claimed he was cheated out of millions when Auchi bought out Rezko.

Auchi found a new partner in May 2016, when Related paid $10 million for a stake in a newly created company, Roosevelt/Clark Partners LLC, which owns the 62 acres, according to the deed.

The 78
‘The 78,’ an undeveloped parcel of land at Clark Street and Roosevelt Road, just south of downtown Chicago. This picture was taken looking southeast from Roosevelt Road. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

The details of the deal haven’t been revealed — including whether Related was given any deadline to develop the land and whether Auchi has to sign off on any projects. Bailey has said the land would be developed with housing, offices and retail space — similar to the mixed-use project Rezko proposed.

Auchi’s property was one of several that Amazon officials looked at when Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner lobbied the company in 2017 to build another headquarters in Chicago. Instead, Amazon ended up picking Arlington, Virginia, and New York.

Ed Burke handled tax appeal for ‘The 78’

The difficulty of developing Auchi’s property was clear in October 2018, when Related hired the law firm of then-14th Ward Ald. Edward M. Burke, hoping he could reduce the property’s multimillion-dollar tax bills that Auchi complained about in his depositions.

Burke asked then-Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios to slash the property value from $18 million to $4.1 million, saying the vacant land needed $530 million in infrastructure work including sewers, streets and relocation of a Metra station before it could be developed.

Six weeks after Related hired Burke, the FBI raided his offices, leading to a federal indictment for bribery, racketeering and conspiracy. Burke, long the most powerful member of the Chicago City Council, was convicted last December.

Ed Burke walking out of courthouse
Then-Ald. Edward M. Burke walks out of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in December 2023. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Two months after the raid, Related dumped Burke’s firm and hired the Fitzgerald Law Group, which has gotten property tax breaks for the 62-acre site that now brings in about $3.1 million in real estate taxes annually.

During Emanuel’s final weeks as mayor, the Chicago City Council created a tax increment financing district to fund infrastructure improvements for Auchi’s land. Burke abstained from voting. City officials agreed to provide as much as $551.2 million to build a CTA Red Line station, relocate the Metra station and make improvements to Clark and 15th streets.

Over the last three years, Related has negotiated with the University of Illinois to develop a 300,000-square-foot research and innovation center that’s being called the Discovery Partners Institute on the site. Bailey originally projected that construction of the institute would begin last year, but the university didn’t receive the deed to the 1-acre plot until Feb. 14.

Under the deal, the Auchi/Related venture must approve the university’s design and construction of the building, and no more than 30% of it can be leased to tenants. Also, the university can’t sell the building and land for 15 years unless Auchi/Related sign off on the transaction.

As the university was negotiating the deal, Bailey and Neil Bluhm, the billionaire owner of Rivers Casino, submitted a bid to City Hall in November 2021 to build the city’s first casino on Auchi’s property.

That was one of five proposals submitted to Lightfoot, who picked Bally’s to build and operate a casino on the site of the Chicago Tribune’s printing plant at 777 W. Chicago Ave.

After Lightfoot rejected Bluhm’s casino bid for Auchi’s land, sources say, Bailey began searching for another high-profile project that could kickstart construction.

‘The 78’ intrigues Reinsdorf

“The 78” was on a short list for a potential new stadium for the Bears, but the team didn’t show an interest in the property. Reinsdorf, though, jumped at a proposal from Related, saying the White Sox need a new stadium near the Loop to keep the team in Chicago.

Reinsdorf has discussed his stadium plans with Johnson and top state lawmakers, hoping the team’s landlord, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, will agree to pay for $1 billion of the project. He also wants the city to approve $900 million for infrastructure.

With the team’s lease at Guaranteed Rate Field expiring in 2029, Reinsdorf has said he wants to sign a long-term lease on a new stadium to help ensure that the Sox remain in Chicago if his partners decide to sell the team after his death. Reinsdorf is 88.

If Reinsdorf’s field of dreams becomes a reality, Related said it will be built on 10 acres that would be owned by the Sports Facilities Authority. Related won’t say whether the land would be sold or donated to the authority. But this would mean the Sox would remain a tenant of the state, not of an Iraqi billionaire.