CHICAGO (CN) – Owners of a Windham Hotel franchise say a Fox News affiliate falsely accused them of bribing State Rep. Paul Froehlich to get their property taxes reduced. Sharad and Harish Dani, operators of the Wingate by Windham Hotel in Schaumburg, say the allegations were baseless and that after the Fox News report came out, the Cook County Board of Review unfairly singled out their hotel for tax revaluation.
In their federal complaint, the Danis, father and son, claim that when they appealed their hotel property taxes in 2007, the co-defendant Cook County Board of Review reduced the appraisal, saving the Danis more than $40,000 per year.
But from May to July 2009, reporter Dane Placko of the Chicago Fox News affiliate alleged in stories that “Illinois State Representative Paul Froehlich was engineering successful Board of Review appeals for his constituents in return for large campaign contributions,” according to the complaint.
The Danis say the allegations were made without evidence and that Placko’s only source for the story was a former disgruntled employee of Rep. Froehlich.
“The story also ran on the Illinois Review blog, which had attracted a large goose-stepping audience, by similarly transforming Rep. Froehlich into an instant pariah and generating a great deal of McCarthy-esque bad publicity surrounding Rep. Froehlich, and all those who were alleged to be guilty by mere association to him,” according to the complaint.
They say the media reports wrongfully accused them of “dishonesty and criminal behavior,” which caused them to lose standing and business.
The Danis say they did not bribe Rep. Froehlich and that he never promised to lower their property taxes “in exchange for campaign contributions.”
Rep. Froehlich does not have the authority to grant a reduction and is not a commissioner on the Board of Review, the complaint states.
In June 2009, the board overturned their property tax reduction for the 2008 and 2009 hotel appraisals and told the Danis, “We can do anything we want,” according to the complaint.
The Danis say the board did not even ask them any questions about the value of the hotel, but “in apparent homage to Torquemada, asked repeated questions about the relationship between plaintiffs and Rep. Froehlich.”
(Tomás de Torquemada, 1420-1498, was a leader of the Spanish Inquisition.)
The Danis say that this year they submitted an appeal to the board along with a third-party appraisal “demonstrating that the hotel was over-taxed,” and the appeal was denied. The Danis say a commissioner for the board, Larry Rogers, told their attorney that the denial was a result of their relationship with Rep. Froehlich.
“At no time were the Plaintiffs or Rep. Froehlich the subject of a subpoena, indictment or investigation,” the complaint adds.
The Danis says the board commissioners have no set method for deciding on tax appeals, but “have established and institutionalized a system of pay for play wherein real estate tax appeal lawyers that contribute to the campaign funds and campaign committees of the commissioners achieve better results for their clients than non-contributing lawyers and non-contributing taxpayers.”
The Danis say they were singled out for reassessment after Placko’s story. Placko, Fox Chicago News and News Corp. are also named as defendants.
“Every American has a constitutional right to contribute to political candidates without fear that their choice to contribute will earn them higher taxes,” the Danis say in the complaint.
In July 2009, the Chicago Tribune reported that Sharad Dani’s companies gave more than $17,000 to Froehlich’s campaign in the preceding year.
Defendants include the Cook County Board of Review and its Commissioners Larry Rogers Jr., Joseph Berrios, Brendan Houlihan, Scott Guetzow, John Sullivan and Thomas Jaconetty, Fox Televisions Stations, Fox Chicago News, News Corp., Dane Placko, the Illinois Review and its publisher Dennis LaComb, and its editor Fran Eaton.
The Danis demand damages for constitutional violations, defamation and false light.
They are represented by Tamara de Silva.