Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said Tuesday that the allegations against the former managers of the U.S. Cellular Coliseum were “not at all surprising” to him and that trying to extract more detailed financial information from those managers was like “dealing with a Soviet Gulag.”
Appearing on GLT’s Sound Ideas, Renner said the city’s lawyers advised him against making public comments about the allegations, suggesting they might later undermine the city’s legal position.
But Renner said the city struggled for years to get more detailed financial records from Central Illinois Arena Management (CIAM), the company that ran the city-owned arena from 2006-2016. CIAM’s owner, John Butler, and four of his top employees now face 111 criminal counts of fraud, theft, money laundering, and other charges. They’ve all pleaded not guilty are due back in court Nov. 3.
“Trying to deal with CIAM was like trying to deal with a Soviet Gulag,” Renner said, apparently referring to the massive system of forced labor camps.
“There was information we couldn’t get,” Renner said. “They claimed it was private. That is absolutely absurd. We couldn’t get information that many members of the public wanted about the books, about the concessions, about many things that should have been released.”
CIAM did not want to disclose more detailed financial information, particularly on food-and-beverage sales. The “disclosure of the detailed information is an unwarranted invasion of privacy,” CIAM’s lawyer, Bill Mueller, wrote in a letter to Bloomington’s city attorney in January 2015. That letter was disclosed as part of a lawsuit by a McLean County blogger who suspected fraud.
Butler’s attorney, Steve Beckett, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on Renner’s comments. Beckett recently told The Pantagraph that “this case is about business and business practices and proper accounting for funds. ... My client has done that and done it the right way.”
Why didn’t the city sued CIAM to get the information it sought?
“There are also costs in litigation,” Renner told GLT.
Renner blamed decisions made by past city leaders. He said the length of the city’s original contract with CIAM—10 years—was way too long.
“That’s kind of like a death sentence,” Renner said.
Renner was asked by GLT’s Charlie Schlenker about comments made by former Alderman Mike Matejka, who said he was told by then-City Manager Tom Hamilton in 2005 that city officials would have full access to all Coliseum financial records. But when the venue’s first quarterly report was released, that granular data was not included. Matejka was told it was proprietary and would not be shared.
Renner was pressed on this question: Given Matejka’s allegation, was Hamilton partly responsible for opening the door to CIAM to not share information?
“My opinion would be, absolutely,” Renner said. “I’m not an attorney. This is part of the legacy costs of the past. I wish the previous city manager and other elected officials in the past had behaved different. We’d have fewer issues today if they had. There are lots of issues and, frankly, messes that the I and the council and others need to clean up as we try to take make progress moving forward.”
Hamilton could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
You can also listen to Renner's full remarks on the Coliseum investigation:
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.