Brandon Johnson and the laundering of union campaign contributions…or at least the appearance thereof.
The primary election (which is the de-facto general election in my one-party district) for the Cook County Board Commissioner seat in the 1st District yielded a new representative as Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) lobbyist Brandon Johnson defeated incumbent Richard Boykin. Normally, an election for a board seat in a county that’s bleeding red (money, not Republicans) wouldn’t warrant much attention. But this election was basically a proxy war for Cook County Commissioner Toni Preckwinkle’s ill-advised and highly-regressive penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax. Boykin, who voted to repeal the soda tax, was backed by the beverage industry, who feared the tax would lead to loss of revenue and beverage-related jobs. Johnson was backed by public sector unions, who feared loss of the soda tax would lead to the loss of government union jobs (and union dues).
That public sector unions came out in full force (see right) to support one of their own is not news. What caught my eye was the movement of Chicago Teachers Union money between various political action committees that eventually made their way into Johnson’s coffers. On its face, CTU contributed $125,500 to Brandon Johnson’s campaign from 12/15/17 through 3/20/18 (see below). But drilling further into CTU contributions over that same time period reveals some suspicious transfers of funds:
- Friends of Robert Martwick, $25,000: On March 19, 2018, the CTU PAC made its largest one-time contribution ever to the 19th District State Representative Robert Martwick (D) for $25,000, eclipsing what they had previously contributed to him over a five year span from 2012-2017. Coincidentally, ten days prior to this generosity, Martwick reported an in-kind contribution of $25,000 to Johnson’s campaign. Was this a repayment of sorts? Why the sudden love from the CTU? And why in the exact same amount he just contributed to Johnson?
- Friends of Susan Sadlowski Garza, $40,000: 10th Ward Alderman Garza is a CTU favorite, maybe because she is also a CTU member. While Garza is the recipient of over $185,000 CTU fun dollars since 2014, she hadn’t received a five-figure contribution from them since January 2017. Then this past March, Garza received two $20,000 contributions from CTU on the same day. Just two weeks later, also on the same day, Johnson receives two $20,000 contributions from Garza, once again in the form of in-kind contributions for mailing.
- Greater Austin Independent Political Organization, $23,000: Not much is known about GAIPO, other than they want to institute a city income tax and what’s on their D-1 Statement of Organization. Their PAC had received a mere $814 in contributions since its inception in March 2017. Then miraculously on March 8, 2018, the CTU gods rained $25,000 onto their Austin acolytes. One would think that such a windfall into a seemingly innocuous neighborhood group would lead to some lengthy deliberation in how to best spend the money, but apparently things move quickly in Austin. A mere five days later, GAIPO sends $23,000 of that $25,000 (maybe they kept $2,000 as a finders fee) to Brandon Johnson. Three weeks later, GAIPO made another $23,000 contribution* to Johnson. Maybe all this love shouldn’t be surprising, considering GAIPO’s Social Media Manager is also Brandon Johnson’s Field Operations Manager, which also explains why Johnson’s face is plastered all over the GAIPO Facebook page: Coincidentally, GAIPO was co-founded by Jason Lee, the Political Director of United Working Families, one of the numerous SEIU-related outfits that was, cumulatively, the 2nd largest donor to Johnson’s campaign.
* UPDATE 10/1/18: Apparently, the $23,000 donation from GAIPO on April 5th was a reporting error
According to the Illinois Campaign Financing Act, contributions to a Candidate Political Committee (how the Friends of Brandon Johnson is registered) from a Political Action Committee (how the CTU PAC is registered) are limited to $55,400 in an election cycle. It looks like the CTU exceeded that limit outright. If the Chicago Teachers Union wasn’t subject to those limits, then what was the purpose of using 3rd parties to make contributions on their behalf? If Johnson needed campaign mailings, why didn’t CTU just give him the $65,000 directly instead of paying Garza and Martwick $65,000 to buy mailings for him? It certainly seems like some contribution limit was in play here, otherwise, why go to such lengths to essentially launder political contributions?
But there’s another twist: It looks like CTU formed a new PAC on 2/20/18 called the Chicago Teachers Union Local 1 PAC. This means there are now two active CTU PAC’s, one registered under CTU president Karen Lewis and the new one under CTU VP Jesse Sharkey. To date, the CTU Local 1 PAC has but one transfer out: $55,000 to Friends of Brandon Johnson, which just happens to keep this PAC under the $55,400 limit. Maybe creating a new PAC under the same corporate umbrella makes everything kosher…on paper. But it’s basically the same damn organization.
One last thing…that $10,500 contribution from CTU to Johnson on March 16 might not have gone directly to Johnson. While Johnson reported it as a CTU contribution on his D-2 Quarterly Report, neither of the CTU PACs reported this transfer to Johnson. The only evidence I could find of a similar payment was an expenditure to Charles Howleit for $10,500 on the same day (see below), but that might have been intended for someone else (Howleit seems to have an extensive enterprise going with the CTU as they spent over $93,000 on his canvassing services in just 3 weeks from February through March). Whether the error was a mistake or deliberate, it’s just the icing on the shoddy bookkeeping cake.
So what do we take from this? Mostly that the Chicago Teachers Union is really no different than the evil corporations they deride (and expect to pay an employee head tax). They create shell companies to seemingly flout legal contributions limits. They use political allies and low income neighborhood groups as intermediaries to move their money around and obscure the extent of their involvement. So much effort to wash so much money clean, you’d think the CTU was unionizing laundromat operators. All this for a seat at the middle management table of middle management government. Considering that seat was won by only 436 votes, it looks like CTU’s shenanigans paid off. Whether or not all this is legal, I’ll leave for the political experts to decide. Legal or not, it’s sloppy and borderline unethical. I might say this is more mob behavior than corporate, but that would insult the mob. At least they have clever nicknames.
And I haven’t even gotten to the fact that our new county commissioner is eligible for a taxpayer-funded Chicago teacher pension even though he’s employed as a lobbyist in the CTU. Luckily, I’ve already covered that topic…