Today in 1978 the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper started publishing a series of stories that reporters still talk about today.

The newspaper’s reporters bought a dive bar in Chicago and worked undercover as bartenders to catch corrupt city inspectors.

The clue that the bar was not quite what it seemed was in the name: the Mirage Tavern.

Sun-Times reporters and an investigator for a watchdog group, the Better Government Association, actually bought a bar on Chicago’s Near North Side.

The place was kind of a mess: its leaky pipes, exposed electrical wires and rodent and bug populations were definitely not up to city code.

But that was the point.

The undercover team had heard that some city inspectors were willing to look the other way on these kinds of violations, for a price, or even demanded bribes to pass inspections.

They couldn’t get any actual bar or restaurant owners to go on the record, so they bought their own place.

The reporters never offered bribes, but they it didn’t take them long to find requests.

The broker who helped them buy the Mirage said he’d not only help them pay off the building and fire inspectors, he’d also help them cover it up in their tax papers.

Those inspectors made regular visits to the Mirage, where they happily accepted envelopes of cash that were sitting out and then proceeded to ignore the code violations they were supposed to be correcting.

And they got photos of the bribes in progress, thanks to carefully positioned bar stools and photojournalists who used holes in the Mirage’s ceilings to take photos without anyone noticing.

After just two months, the Sun-Times team had enough information to publish a 25-part investigation about what they learned at the Mirage.

One-third of Chicago’s electrical inspectors faced indictments for fraud, and both the city and the state made big changes to try to prevent more corruption in the future.

The Mirage team were also considered for a Pulitzer Prize.

By then they had sold the bar.

It’s in operation today under a new name, the Brehon Pub.

Judging by the online reviews, the new owners have fixed all the problems that those inspectors in the 1970s had chosen not to see.

Today in 1935, the birthday of Elvis Presley, or at least the best known Elvis Presley.

Other people have changed their name to Elvis Presley since the King first became a star.

One of them, auto shop worker and impersonator Elvis D. Presley of Star City, Arkansas, ran in 2014 for commissioner of state lands.

I hope the campaign didn’t leave him all shook up.

A toast to undercover journalism’s greatest coup, when reporters bought a bar (Columbia Journalism Review) 


Elvis runs for office in Arkansas (Arkansas Online)

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Photo of People’s Park Tavern, Hackney by Laine Pub Co via Flickr/Creative Commons