09 May

Strip Clubs, Milwaukee Aldermen, and Bribes

For years the owners of strip club Silk Exotic were trying to open a strip club in downtown Milwaukee. They knew there was a market for what they had to offer. There were already a handful of strip clubs in or close to downtown, but for some reason, they couldn’t get approved.

Eventually, the Silk owners won a jury verdict of more than $400,000 against the city, but that still didn’t get them their strip club. Milwaukee appealed the verdict and lost. When they added attorneys fees to the jury award, the city was on the hook for more than $968,000.

Milwaukee didn’t want to pay Silk the money, so Silk’s owners made them an offer: Let them open a strip club, and they’d forgo the jury award. Silk finally opened its strip club in downtown Milwaukee last year.

But it wasn’t easy getting there. They needed the approval of the Milwaukee Common Council. Enter Willie Wade, who was a former alderman by the time the vote came around. Almost exactly two years ago, the Common Council voted to approve the license for Silk Exotic.

Wade was allegedly the recipient of $30,000 in bribes, claiming that he was convincing a current alderman, Khalif Rainey, to vote in favor of issuing the license. (Rainey apparently wasn’t aware of what Wade was doing.)

The shenanigans according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are interesting:

Before the measure passed the Licenses Committee and then the full council, Wade allegedly told one of the strip club owners that he could “obtain votes” from certain council members in favor of the license application “but would need to be paid,” the grand jury indictment says. 

Wade at one point said a payment of $15,000 would result in a “done deal” but then sought to increase the amount of the purported bribe, the affidavit says.

Wade also told the club owner that Rainey “needed the money to be layered,” and at one point demanded “20K cash by midnight Sunday night” before the Licenses Committee voted, “falsely claiming” that he had persuaded the alderman to lower his demand from $50,000, the indictment says.

Wade met with an informant at a variety of locations, including the parking lots of Milwaukee businesses and at other locations in the surrounding suburbs, the affidavit says.

When the club owner told Wade he needed to meet with Rainey directly, Wade reportedly refused.

“Wade explained that Rainey is new at this and Rainey does not trust” the informant, the affidavit says.

Wade instead said he would text Rainey once he received the money, and instructed the club owner to send him “a text with a thumbs up emoji” if Rainey voted yes for the license application, the affidavit says.

Wade also said he would send a “code” to Rainey in the club owner’s presence.

“Wade then typed the following text message to Rainey, which Wade read out loud as he was typing: ‘we good with the home team,'” the affidavit says.

The indictment says Wade received an initial payment of $15,000 on May 8, just before the Licences (sic) Committee voted on the club’s application, and a second $15,000 payment on May 9, after the full council approved the application.

The federal search warrant and related affidavit in the case are sealed but at one point were briefly unsealed, uncovered by George Washington University researcher Seamus Hughes and shared with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

This is the second bribery scandal involving city of Milwaukee employees in recent history. Former Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) board president Michael Bonds was just indicted last month for allegedly taking bribes from a company that runs charter schools.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Universal [Companies] was chartered by MPS to operate the Universal Academy for the College Bound in three Milwaukee school buildings from 2013 until it abruptly left the district in 2017, leaving hundreds of children stranded in the middle of the school year.

The school received at least $11 million in taxpayer funds in its first two years, according to the court document, yet it struggled academically and financially from the beginning.

In one case, it says, Bonds helped the company defer about $1 million in lease payments to MPS in April 2016. 

After living in Milwaukee for nearly 30 years, I can tell you that the corruption runs deep. These two stories are but the tip of the iceberg. Politicians here have had a free-for-all for decades, and it’s unlikely to stop any time soon.

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