But even in the face of such evidence — and much more — District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis did not pursue the case.
Why? There may be answers in the civil suit that Kessler has filed against the City for wrongful termination and retaliation. After spending many years working with business improvement districts, Kessler was brought into City government in April of 2006 as deputy director of the Economic Development Division. One of his duties was to monitor these districts. Among many things, he continued to find fault with Li Mandri’s activities. In one case, Kessler found that Li Mandri had taken in more money than his contract allowed.
Another time, Li Mandri proposed that the City jettison its long-standing practice of conducting monthly audits of contract expenditures and have a particular bank do a yearly audit instead. In early 2007, Kessler was summoned to a meeting in Mayor Jerry Sanders’s office. Legislative director Julie Dubick told Kessler he was to meet with Li Mandri, Little Italy Association boardmembers, and the association’s attorney, Theresa McAteer. Li Mandri’s people presented their once-a-year audit proposal. Dubick liked the idea, according to Kessler’s suit. But the branch manager of the suggested bank was a Little Italy Association boardmember, according to Kessler’s suit. Kessler objected, and the proposal was shelved.
Kessler made it known that Li Mandri’s role at the Little Italy Association was leading to a lack of competitive procurement practices, and he placed new conditions on contracts among the association, the city, and New City America. Li Mandri complained to Sanders, and the mayor’s staff enthusiastically sided with Li Mandri, according to the suit. The mayor’s office instructed Kessler to “bend contracting rules” in favor of Li Mandri, according to the suit. Kessler refused. Dubick allegedly asked why the Little Italy Association was not reimbursed for McAteer’s legal expenses. When Kessler said this was not permissible, Dubick said, “Find a way to pay for it,” according to the Kessler suit.
Kessler testified in front of a grand jury about the alleged illegal activities brought out in the FBI/police report. After Dumanis refused to prosecute — against her subordinates’ recommendation — Kessler argued that the report’s revelations were severe enough for Li Mandri to be banned from getting further City contracts.
In early October 2008, Kessler supplied copies of the police/FBI report to his supervisors. The Ethics Commission requested a copy, which Kessler provided. But he was told that “all hell had broken loose in the mayor’s office” when it got word that Kessler had turned over the report to the Ethics Commission. Kessler was instructed to stop talking with the FBI/police probers and to turn over all copies of their reports to Jay Goldstone, the City’s bean counter and chief operating officer.
A few days later, Kessler learned that the mayor’s office supported a proposal whereby Li Mandri would get a $20,000 no-bid/sole-source contract to do work that Centre City Development Corporation was already doing for free, according to the suit. “Regardless of Li Mandri’s proposal being illegitimate, Mayor Sanders’s office supported the proposal,” says the suit. (Although Li Mandri didn’t end up getting that contract, he got a big contract for valet parking services in Little Italy.)
Around this time, Kessler experienced a Hemingway-like Moment of Truth: he realized why the mayor’s office had been so upset about his providing the report to the Ethics Commission. In fighting what he believed to be Li Mandri’s questionable contracts, Kessler was on the wrong team. The mayor was on the pro–Li Mandri team, explains the suit. Dubick and the mayor’s chief of staff, Kris Michell, were particularly angry with Kessler for being the skunk at the mayor’s garden party, says the suit.
In late October and into November 2008, the axe began to fall in stages. First, Kessler was told that one-third of his staff would be reporting directly to the mayor. Then Kessler heard a rumor that his own head would be in the guillotine. When he questioned his boss William Anderson, he initially acted surprised, but finally Anderson admitted it was true: Kessler would be gone. Another employee was being demoted into his position. His job was to train her before he packed up his papers and departed.
According to the suit, Kessler asked his supervisor if his (Kessler’s) cooperation with the investigators and Ethics Commission had cooked his goose. Anderson said, “It certainly ruined [Kessler’s] relationship with Mayor Sanders’s office, and Mayor Sanders’s office lost their trust in [Kessler].” Therefore, Kessler alleges in the suit that the cause of his termination, which occurred on November 21, was his cooperation with the two investigators and the Ethics Commission, as well as his attempts to rein in Li Mandri’s abuses. (The Ethics Commission later concluded that it had no jurisdiction in the matter.)
Judge John S. Meyer has already dismissed parts of Kessler’s lawsuit, “but we still have the guts of our case,” says Joshua Gruenberg, Kessler’s lawyer, who has made a settlement offer. The city attorney’s office will only say that last Friday it filed for dismissal of Kessler’s suit. Gruenberg is confident this summary judgment motion attempt won’t get anywhere. Unless the schedule is changed for some reason, the trial is set to begin June 10.
Another key matter is not discussed in the FBI/police investigation. Kessler initially went to law enforcement because a police officer told him that Mannino, who was on the board of the business improvement district council, had been convicted of a felony. In July of 1979 in New York City, undercover agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration traced Quaalude sales to a Paul Mannino and ultimately found boxes of the drugs in his car, according to federal records. Mannino was indicted in February of 1980; a jury convicted him of violation of federal drug, firearms, and racketeering laws. He lost his appeal and went to prison. Li Mandri met Mannino around 2000.
Mannino, who was ultimately fired from the North Bay Association, now heads Throwdown Elite Training Center, a Midway-area facility that teaches such skills as kickboxing and jujitsu. He did not return three calls.