Monday, February 08, 2010

The masseuse, her pawnbroker, his running mate and the people of Illinois

By David Heinzmann

I’ve been a reporter for 17 years and have covered various corners of crime and corruption in Chicago for most of that time. But it wasn’t until I recently started helping the Tribune cover Illinois politics that I had cause to take my notebook into a massage parlor looking for answers.

But that’s where I was last Thursday, in downtown Villa Park, at a furtively run establishment known to its faithful as the Eden Spa. It took some shoe leather to get there because the vague directions on their web site were out of date. I’d started out with the photos on the site’s gallery confirming the employment of the girl I was looking for: tall, tanned and blonde, dressed in white lingerie and stockings. But they don’t publish the exact address on the web site, so I had to call. The Eden had recently moved, it turned out.

A very, very friendly woman answered the phone and gave me precise directions that led me directly to an unassuming little one-story office complex in the western suburb. At the end of the row of storefront office suites stood one unmarked door, window curtains drawn, no signage. You’d never notice it.

I walked into a cozily lit reception area. Paneling. Candles flickering. A dish of peppermints. I took one and smiled at the nice lady while she gave some other caller the exact same directions she’d given me minutes before.

When she hung up and turned her attention to me, I asked, “Is Mandi available?”

Two days before, on election night I had been sitting at the city desk watching the election returns firm up in the various primary races. Election night in a newsroom is always an electric event, waiting for hours to see where the upsets will be, and then reacting, pounding out stories and making phone calls to get the winners and losers on the line for a quote while the night’s deadlines come hurtling at you.

It was a crowded field for lieutenant governor with six candidates in each party’s primary. Mostly little known state lawmakers were expected to vie for the chance to be the governor candidate’s running mate. But as the numbers shaped up Tuesday, it became clear that the Democratic winner was going to be a quirky candidate nobody had paid much attention to.

Scott Lee Cohen was a pawnbroker with no political organization, and nobody took him seriously. It seemed he couldn’t win. What nobody knew was that Cohen has access to a couple million bucks and had decided to spend all of it running for lieutenant governor, a job with little power or formal role in state government. But the thing is, even though it's not much of a job, the primary nominee gets locked into the gubernatorial ticket. So a controversial lieutenant governor -- or "lite gov" --candidate can sink a govenor's candidacy. (see 1986; Adlai Stevenson; Lyndon Larouche)

Oops.

So early Wednesday morning, I started to sift through what we knew about Cohen. He owned a pawn shop, and he’d told a Sun-Times columnist months before that he’d once been arrested for domestic battery in 2005. Cohen’s office then returned my call from the night before. The candidate had just won a stunning victory but he didn’t want to talk to me. He’s tired, and thinking about going on a vacation, his spokesman said. You understand.

No, I didn’t. In fact, I’d never heard of a politician winning a big upset victory at the polls and deciding he would make no public appearances, and instead go into seclusion for a few days. So I argued. Eventually, they relented and granted an interview with Cohen for that afternoon. In the meantime I ordered the domestic battery case file from the courthouse.

When we sat down in his West Loop campaign office, Cohen told me about his dreams of helping put Illinoisans back to work. Incentives for business, green energy, etc.

That domestic? Oh, his girlfriend was drunk and he never touched her. She calmed down and dropped the charges. It was a rough time in his life because he was going through a divorce. I had to admit I could see how a difficult divorce from your wife might put some serious stress on your relationship with your girlfriend.

I asked a lot of questions and Cohen talked and talked, and then I left. When I got back to the office, the domestic battery file had arrived. Well, it was a little different from what he’d told me. The girlfriend said he’d put a knife to her throat. The police took pictures of abrasions on her neck. They called an ambulance. Hmm.

Also, the file gave me the woman’s name for the first time. Amanda J. Eneman. I googled her, of course. And guess what came up:

The Eden Spa.

2005. Just a few months before the knife incident. A prostitution sting. Eneman charged. I ran to a computer in the newsroom that gives us access to Cook County court records and looked up the charges. She’d pleaded guilty to prostitution, servicing an undercover cop for $150. (The cop’s actions in that case are a story for another time.)

And so began the brief flaming saga of Scott Lee Cohen, which ended last night with his tear-drenched press conference in a North Side bar during half time of the Super Bowl while clutching his bawling children, and sputtering out that he was acquiescing to Mike Madigan’s demand that he get the hell out of the race before he dragged Gov. Pat Quinn’s candidacy to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

“Is Mandi available?” I had asked.

Not right then, came the answer. Mandi usually makes her appointments in advance. Did I have an appointment? Nope.

So the woman asked if I’d like a session with Gabby, or some other name I didn’t catch, or herself, actually. She was available.

“No, I need to see Mandi.”

Did I want to leave a number? I gave her my card. She read it and the smile finally went away. Later that night Amanda left a message on my desk phone, telling me she didn’t want to talk to me. Two days after that, she released a statement, through the high-profile California lawyer Gloria Allred, saying she didn’t think the Scott Lee Cohen she knew—the once she met while giving him a massage at the Eden Spa, the once she said held a knife to her throat--was fit to hold public office.

Sunday night Cohen said vehemently that Amanda’s opinion had nothing to do with his early retirement from Illinois politics.

4 comments:

Libby Hellmann said...

How can you not love this story? Just when you thought it couldnt get any worse in Illinois... it does! Thank god he resigned.

Thanks, Dave. Great post!

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Sara Paretsky said...

Dave, I don't see how you can write fiction when you have this under your nose day in day out. None of us could make up anything half as good! Okay, maybe you could, but I couldn't.

Corey said...

Confused. I thought a criminal record was a *requirement* to run for office in Illinois.