Hofbräuhaus criticism protected by First Amendment, lawyer says

This is an artist’s rendering of the Hofbräuhaus German restaurant and brewery under construction off Illinois 15 in Belleville.
This is an artist’s rendering of the Hofbräuhaus German restaurant and brewery under construction off Illinois 15 in Belleville.

Belleville City Clerk Dallas Cook’s attorney has sent the Hofbräuhaus developer’s lawyer a letter stating that any criticism of the project is protected by the First Amendment.

Cook was responding to Hofbräuhaus developer Chuck Keller’s attorney’s letter accusing Cook of making “false and defamatory” comments about the German restaurant and brewery under construction off Illinois 15. Cook said he wants the project to succeed, but he has the right to ask questions about it since the city has granted tax incentives for it and agreed to pay to extend sewers to the site.

Hofbräuhaus construction began late last year and originally was targeted to open in June 2016 but Keller has said he hopes to have it open in May 2017. Also, plans for hotels, restaurants, a conference center, a soccer park and convenience store have been announced for the site but none of them have been built.

“These were expressions of constitutionally protected opinion,” Belleville attorney Eric Rhein wrote on behalf of Cook. “They are protected even if they were wrong. You know, like how the Kellers were wrong to get free money and benefits by promising their restaurant would be open by June 2016.

“This after the city has spent almost $3 million for sewer service to benefit your clients and have granted them multimillion dollar tax breaks, tax breaks available to the crony capitalistic few,” Rhein wrote.

Rhein couldn’t be reached for additional comment.

Michael T. George, the St. Louis attorney for Keller, said in an interview he was “disappointed” by Cook’s response.

“This is a sophisticated project,” George said. “It would be best if everybody gets behind it and let it get completed. That’s all we wanted.”

George sent his letter to Cook last week and Rhein responded this week.

Cook also said Ted Deets, who has helped Cook during election campaigns, and Lillian Schneider, a former Belleville alderwoman who plans to run again in the April election, received a “cease and desist” letter from George. Rhein said in his letter he also was representing Deets and Schneider.

Cook, who said last week he is running in the April election against Mayor Mark Eckert, said he believed Eckert urged Keller to send the “cease and desist” letters. Eckert denied that.

“For some reason the mayor had them target the three of us, and that’s what I firmly believe and that he’s behind it all,” Cook said.

Eckert’s response: “That’s a false statement. I didn’t encourage Keller to send the letter. That’s just absolutely not true.”

“That’s a lie,” Keller said in a statement released by his spokesman, Ron O’Connor.

George also said that Eckert was not involved in the letter. “That’s false,” he said of Cook’s comment.

Before Keller sent the “cease and desist” letter, he sent a letter last month to city officials defending his work and asking for their support against criticism of the project.

The Hofbräuhaus plans were first announced in early 2015 and O’Connor has said a Hyatt Place hotel is being planned for the site.

The City Council has agreed to pay over $2 million to extend sewer lines to the site across Illinois 15 from the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. Also, aldermen have agreed to offer about $38 million in tax incentives based on city tax revenue generated at the site. As part of the $38 million in incentives, the Keller family of Effingham was granted $32.36 million, and the developers of a proposed soccer park were promised $5.5 million in incentives.

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