Friday, February 22, 2008

ShowerGate steam rises as City Hall circles drain

If you don't know about City Hall's latest scandal -- ShowerGate -- then you probably haven't seen my new, hot video quest to take a steamy, lathered-up shower one floor above Mayor Richard Daley's office.

Just think of me at City Hall on Wednesday, towel over my arm and a couple of bars of Irish Spring soap, begging to shower in the new, luxury spa built secretly for the mayor's tax-happy budget director, Bennett Johnson III.

But don't think of my Mediterranean back hair. It might ruin your breakfast.
You think this is a joke? You think taxpayers are allowed to take a shower in one of the secret City Hall showers built with taxpayer dollars?

No. They're not allowed to shower in the secret shower. And I wasn't allowed a shower, either, though I brought the special soap.

If you've got a computer, just go to and you'll see the whole thing, including the FedEx guy who likes Irish Spring, too, and a discussion of pulsating water jets, the hot towel rack, soap dispensers, and heaters to keep you toasty.

"And the public can't use it?" asked the troubled FedEx guy.


I've known about ShowerGate for several weeks now, and, as a former City Hall reporter, I waited for the bureaucrats to finish ordering city workers to complete the shower before asking any questions.

They'd have shut it down if I'd asked earlier. They still might shut it down, now that City Hall has massaged its story considerably from the time I showed up with my towel. Seconds after city workers and politicians spied me and the Polish Spartacus carrying shower gear into the building, the secret was out. I wouldn't be surprised if they leaked it to the other paper.

Now Bennett Johnson is being forced to say he's paying for the shower, some $5,400 or so, a cheap shower beneath the dignity of a budget boss. They're probably dropping the Greek marble, the hot-stone warmers and the fancy scented candles as you read this. Is there soap in the shower? Or do you have to bring your own?

"I haven't seen it," she said. "I'll have to go look at it."

Why would a budget director need a shower?
"A fair question. I promise I will get back to you by the end of the day," she said.

Is it stressful? Does he sweat? I sweat.

"That's fair. I think they're all fair, Mr. Kass," she said.

She was right. They were fair. And City Hall did respond to my questions, after they had several meetings about Johnson's secret shower and they shaped a story out of fear and chaos.

Personally, I think it's another Chicago fairy tale, like the time I gave the mayor's airport operations boss, Dave "Pool Boy" Ochal, his nickname.

"Pool Boy" had a beautiful in-ground pool built in his Northwest Side backyard, with concrete you could land jets on, with shrubbery as fine as any from Streets and San, and with lights as nice as anything City Hall electricians could build. Once completed, it flooded his neighbors' yards, causing damage, and Pool Boy's favorite paper, the Sun-Times, defended him with an editorial saying he was a good neighbor who'd remove the pool immediately.

City Hall insisted that Ochal paid for it all himself, and would show me the canceled checks to prove it. The next day, they decided they didn't have to show me the checks. Last we checked, Pool Boy was still having pool parties.

On Wednesday, my old City Hall reporting partner, now the mayor's press secretary, said Bennett Johnson was a dedicated bicyclist who needed to take showers after riding to work and that Johnson was paying for everything now.

"He's a big biking enthusiast," Jacquelyn Heard said. "I'm told he needs a shower after biking and that he's willing to pay for the privilege of having one."

That's nice. There are other, older showers used at City Hall, but the mayor doesn't have to pay for his shower, and the chief of staff doesn't have to pay for hers, and the boss of Streets and San gets a quick, free rinse whenever he gets sweaty behind his desk.

But the budget director has to pay out of his own pocket? And I didn't get my chance to lather up with Irish Spring: manly, yes, and City Hall likes it too.

"I can't let you into the budget director's office without him being present," said Johnson's spokeswoman, Wendy Abrams, who handled the stressful situation with style and grace.

I'm not going to look at any secret contracts, or anything with Tommy DiPiazza's name on it.

"I'm not suggesting you're going to snoop around," she said.

You can come with me, I said.

"No!" she said.

I swear to God I'm not going to take a shower in your presence, I said, waving my towel and soap. I just want to see it.

But she said that was quite impossible, so I asked some more.

How many people can fit in the shower?

"Another fair question," she said. "I will give you all the details by the end of the day."

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