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Mayor Rahm Emanuel (right) talks on Oct. 1, 2012, with Donald Welsh (left), CEO of Choose Chicago, and Jim Reilly, CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the government agency known as McPier that directly oversaw Navy Pier’s operation before turning it over to Navy Pier Inc. | Al Podgorski/Sun-Times

Tourism agency won’t say how it spends government millions

Choose Chicago — the city’s convention and tourism bureau — gets half of its money from government agencies, but it won’t tell the public how it spends it.

And it doesn’t have to, according to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, because it’s a not-for-profit corporation.

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Big salaries, bonuses for some Navy Pier top staff

Half of Choose Chicago’s funding comes from the city of Chicago and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the government agency known as McPier that also leases office space to the tourism group. 

Choose Chicago’s 42-member board includes four city officials, a state official and two members from McPier.

“There is no indication that the city or MPEA directly controls Choose Chicago or that the day-to-day operations . . . are inextricably intertwined with those of the city or MPEA,” Madigan’s staff wrote in a June 4 decision ruling that Choose Chicago isn’t subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Choose Chicago has a payroll of $8.4 million, according to one of the few documents the agency would release, including $412,333 for its chief executive officer. But the document doesn’t identify the CEO, Donald Welsh.

Choose Chicago vice president Meghan Risch wouldn’t release a roster of employees with salaries, saying they aren’t paid with taxpayer money. She also declined to release information on the severance package given to Warren Wilkinson, the former chief marketing officer who left last summer.

Choose Chicago got $8 million from City Hall, including a $3 million grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, headed by Commissioner Michelle Boone — one of four city officials on the board of Choose Chicago.

“DCASE has never audited Choose Chicago,” city spokeswoman Jamey Lundblad says. “We’re pleased with their progress — and the city is on its way to meeting the mayor’s goal of attracting 55 million visitors by 2020.”