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River North

The Mirage tavern was exactly what it advertised: an illusion. It was not a real business, but a front for a journalistic sting. Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

When Pam Zekman and her colleagues bought a run-down bar in River North in 1977, it was filled with leaking pipes, frayed wires, and all kinds of code violations. You would think they could have found a better place.

That was the whole point. Zekman wasn’t really a would-be entrepreneur; she was a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, fishing for corrupt City of Chicago inspectors.

She and her team, working with the Better Government Association, named the bar The Mirage, installed cameras in the ceilings, and set about finding out just how corrupt city inspectors were.

The undercover reporters didn’t offer bribes; they waited to see what the inspectors might ask for in order to look the other way when they saw rats, roaches, frayed wires, leaking ceilings, raw sewage – you name it.

Sometimes just $10 did the trick.

After just two months in “business,” the sting wrapped up and the newspaper issued its findings in a 25-part series. Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes did a story, too.

And while no one went to jail, several city and state employees were fired or suspended, and some were even convicted of bribery charges. And it’s possible that corruption in Chicago got knocked down a notch or two, at least for a while.

Watch the Segment

Sun-Times reporters and photographers posing as bar owners purchased a building with obvious code violations, and prepared to be shaken down by city inspectors. Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

Pam Zekman was the lead reporter on the case. She had repeatedly heard about bribes demanded of business owners in order to pass city inspections, but couldn’t get subjects to go on record. So she decided to go another route. Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

“Mr. Fixit” – a middleman and accountant named Phil Barasch who brazenly worked the system – advised the new bar owners on how things operated. Leaving cash in envelopes or openly on the bar was part of the system. In a post-sting interview with 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace, he shamelessly admitted to tax fraud, saying that everybody did it. Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

Some inspectors could be paid off for as little as $10; the most expensive wanted $100. Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

The fire inspector took his cash – without even looking at the frayed wiring. Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

Sun-Times photographers caught all of the action through a hole in the ceiling. The inspectors didn’t notice that, either. Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

The Mirage had many problems, and Zekman’s crew chose not to correct any of them. Photo Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

The Mirage is long gone, and in its place is a real tavern called the Brehon Pub. Photo Credit: Alan Brunettin