Downtown St. Paul parking ramp to be sold to 'serial con man'

John Thomas says St. Paul has "nothing to do" with all that stuff that happened in Riverdale, Illinois.

John Thomas says St. Paul has "nothing to do" with all that stuff that happened in Riverdale, Illinois. ParkMe

The Capital City Plaza Parking Ramp in downtown St. Paul has been little more than a financial sinkhole since its completion in 2000. After failing to earn back what it cost to build it, the port authority defaulted on the ramp’s debts in 2009, and it fell into the hands of its bondholders – and their trustee, Wells Fargo, according to a report in the Star Tribune.

As of earlier this month, Wells Fargo is finally poised to drop the ramp like it’s hot (although, clearly, it isn’t, and never was). The sale is still pending, but the trustee’s plan is to sell it to a company called Jet Park LLC, and its owner, John Thomas, for $12 million. It would have been $14.2 million if not for the ramp’s “unexpectedly poor financial performance.”

The sale is turning a few heads -- mostly for the man who’s trying to buy it. John Thomas has done time in federal prison for defrauding an entire town, and even before that, was an infamous swindler under another name: Bernard Barton.

Barton’s saga began in New York in the ‘90s, while he was running a billboard leasing company. Barton would routinely sell space on billboards that he neither owned nor controlled. In 2004, he pled guilty to fraud charges after allegedly scamming a client out of nearly $314,000. He managed to avoid prison by offering his services to federal authorities -- not as a billboard broker, but as a mole.

For the following 10 years, Barton -- now Thomas -- worked with New York federal prosecutors to take down some of Chicago’s most corrupt officials. He gathered hours of secret audio by wearing a wire while meeting with his former business associate, Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who was planning on skimming $7 million off companies trying to do business with former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

With the evidence stacked against him, Rezko voluntarily went to prison in 2008, and Blagojevich was subsequently charged with corruption, impeached, and later sentenced to 14 years in prison. Others followed, with Thomas’ help -- including former Chicago Alderman Isaac Carothers, who allegedly backed zoning changes in exchange for free home renovations by a politically connected developer.

Thomas reaped the rewards of his cooperation: a probation sentence on his fraud conviction. He had a fresh start, and a chance to go legit. And then he blew it.

In 2011, Thomas bought an 11-acre site in the Illinois town of Riverdale with the promise to develop a marina on the spot. The city gave him $900,000 to cover the project costs. But in 2015, he sobbed as he plead guilty to using more than $370,000 of taxpayer money on personal expenses, like paying off debts and rent. Prosecutors, unimpressed with his emotional plea, called him a “serial con man” and saw to it that U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced him to five years in prison and ordered him to pay a little over $374,000 in restitution.

To this day, the marina remains closed. It has been vandalized and stripped for parts after years of dormancy. Riverdale Mayor Lawrence Jackson told the Chicago Tribune in 2015 that it looked like “a professional wrestler [had] gone through the place and just trashed it.” Riverdale, Jackson said earlier this year, is “still dealing with John Thomas’ mess.”

Meanwhile, Thomas is trying to put his life back together. In 2017, according to a report in the Star Tribune, he was released to a halfway house after serving part of his sentence in Duluth and completing a rehab program for drugs and alcohol. He’s back in Chicago, now, and he told the Tribune he plans on making his final restitution payment next month. Then, if the Capital City Plaza sale goes through, he’ll begin doing business in the Twin Cities.

It’s no longer up to the city of St. Paul and the port authority to find a reputable buyer; the parking ramp is not theirs to sell. Wells Fargo is “driving the bus” now, Port Authority President Lee Krueger told the Tribune. The bank declined to comment on Thomas' past. 

Besides the failed parking ramp, Thomas said he’s interested in buying the former Ecolab University Center, and possibly a few other properties in the area, saying he believes he’ll be “ensconced in that market for some time.”

The issues around Riverdale, he said, “have nothing to do with St. Paul.”