Law limits union campaign gifts, but what if they give to allies who then give to their candidate?

Law limits union campaign gifts, but what if they give to allies who then give to their candidate?

Lakesia Collins, who’s running for the Illinois House in the March 17 Democratic primary. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

The timing and the amounts of contributions to union staffers running for office raises questions about whether they violate a state cap on labor union campaign giving.

The Service Employees International Union has a candidate it likes in the race to succeed state Rep. Art Turner II, a West Side Democrat who isn’t seeking reelection.

That’s Lakesia Collins, one of the union’s nursing home organizers.

The SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana PAC has contributed $33,000 to Collins’ campaign, and the SEIU Illinois State Council PAC has given her another $25,000, according to campaign finance filings. Others with ties to SEIU Local 73 also have given campaign money to Collins, who faces six other candidates in the March 17 Democratic primary.

But the timing and the amounts of the contributions raise questions about whether they violate a state cap on campaign giving.

In four instances, records examined by the Chicago Sun-Times show, union-friendly elected officials have reported receiving a campaign contribution from SEIU and then, within one month, giving that exact amount to Collins — for a total of $65,000.

Contributions are capped at $57,800 from each political action committee through November and at $11,600 from any union, corporation or association.

“Lakesia is happy to have supporters throughout the city who are excited about her campaign and believe in her ability to fight for working families,” says Jackie Anderson, Collins’ campaign manager.

Brandon Johnson at a rally last Oct. 27 at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church for the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 during the teachers strike.Colin Boyle / Sun-Times
Brandon Johnson at a rally last Oct. 27 at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church for the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 during the teachers strike.

In 2018, Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson enjoyed similar support from his union when he defeated incumbent Richard Boykin for a seat on the Cook County Board. Johnson got $78,000 from his union and its political action committee.

Then, Johnson got $55,000 from a second CTU PAC, established a month before the primary, $23,000 from an outside PAC funded solely by the CTU, and tens of thousands more from three union allies who, like four of Collins’ contributors, then, within weeks, gave Johnson the same amount the CTU had given them.

Illinois’ election code says: “No person shall make an anonymous contribution or a contribution in the name of another person, and no person shall knowingly accept any anonymous contribution or contribution made by one person in the name of another person.”

Illinois Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich says that also applies to transfers involving PACs. But Dietrich says it’s hard to prove whether a candidate is serving as a pass-through from a union to get around the limit.

“Should someone file a complaint making that allegation, it would go through our hearing process,” Dietrich says.

Here’s a rundown of the timing of the contributions to Collins:

• On Nov. 20, SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana gave $5,000 to Josina Morita, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner who’s not facing reelection until 2022. On Dec. 13, Morita gave $5,000 to Collins. SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana has an ownership stake in the Sun-Times.

• On Jan. 28, the union gave $25,000 to Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th), whose term runs out in 2023. On Feb. 7, Taylor gave $25,000 to Collins.

• On Feb. 1, the union gave $20,000 to Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), who then gave Collins the same amount on Feb. 22.

• On Dec. 18, the union gave $15,000 to Johnson, who then gave the same amount to Collins on Jan. 23.

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The union also has given Collins $33,465.32.

Asked about the timing of the contributions, SEIU spokesman James Muhammad says: “We wholeheartedly support the candidacy of Lakesia Collins, whose track record demonstrates the core of our values for working families. We also encourage other organizations, other candidates and local unions who have a similar vision to support Lakesia as well.”

In 2018, Johnson — who is paid $85,000 a year as a county commissioner plus $103,000 by the CTU as a community organizer — benefited from a second PAC that CTU president Jesse Sharkey set up at a time PAC contributions were capped at $55,400. Those caps were lifted on March 12, meaning contributors could then give as much as they wanted through the March 20, 2018, primary.

CTU Local 1 PAC was founded Feb. 14, 2018, funded by dues CTU members opt to pay as political contributions.

The day before the primary, that PAC gave $55,000 — $400 shy of the limit — of the $78,000 it had on hand to Johnson, who, as a county commissioner, doesn’t directly work with schools.

“Brandon is a member, he’s an employee, he’s pro-union, he’s pro-affordable housing, he’s pro-elected school board, he’s a liaison to a number of ministers throughout the city,” CTU spokesman Ronnie Reese says. “He represents us as well as anyone can.”

For the union, having the second PAC “gives us more flexibility in donating to candidates who support our values,” Reese says, noting that the smaller CTU committee has subsequently given to other candidates as well.

Johnson says one candidate giving money to another is a “common practice that happens within campaigns. We always work within the confines of the rules.”

There also have been other cases in recent years in which campaign money given to one candidate or organization soon found its way to another, the Sun-Times found:

• In 2017, Johnson helped start the Greater Austin Independent Political Committee. Based on the West Side, it has made just one contribution, giving Johnson’s campaign $23,000 on March 9, 2018. Two days earlier, it got $25,000 from the CTU.

Ronald DuBose, who went on to chair Johnson’s campaign committee, told the election board he co-founded the PAC “to organize the Austin community to exercise greater political power.”

• In 2018, Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a former Chicago school counselor who remains a CTU member, reported getting $20,000 from the CTU’s main PAC on March 1 and $20,000 on March 14. That March 27, Garza — whose term wasn’t up until 2019 — paid $20,000 for mailers for Johnson.

• On March 9, 2018, state Sen. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, also paid $25,000 toward mailers for Johnson from the same company as Garza. Ten days later, Martwick — who has been shepherding efforts in Springfield to turn the appointed Chicago Board of Education into an elected body, as the union wants — got $25,000 from the original CTU PAC.

• From Jan. 31, 2018, through March 14, 2018, the Chicago Federation of Labor — of which the CTU is a member — gave Johnson $20,000 even as it was getting $17,000 from the CTU’s main PAC.

DuBose, Garza and Taylor didn’t return messages seeking comment.

“What they’re doing with this from A to B and B to C, with the same amount, is a contribution in the name of another,” says Richard Means, who was Harold Washington’s election lawyer during his successful campaigns for mayor. “The whole thing is gaming the system, and it’s really not any different than money laundering. This is something that people should be embarrassed by. And indeed it is clearly dishonest when they are reporting the middle man instead of the ultimate source or the original source.”

Means says the intermediary as well as the original source of a contribution could be in violation, depending on what they knew.

Michael Dorf, who was Barack Obama’s election lawyer when he ran for Congress and the U.S. Senate, says, “The question is: Are you the recipient really making that contribution, or are you making it in the name of someone else?”

Burt Odelson, another election lawyer, says organizations routinely get away with these kinds of contributions “unless a complaint is filed.”

Hired by former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Odelson filed a complaint in 2016 with the Illinois State Board of Elections against Kim Foxx, the current state’s attorney. The board ruled unanimously in March 2016 that Foxx violated campaign finance law by not disclosing a $25,000 contribution from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle that was used to pay for a poll.

Foxx was fined nearly $20,000 for that — $5,000 less than the amount of Preckwinkle’s contribution.

The board also assessed fines of $40,250 against Foxx’s campaign for 13 separate violations of campaign finance laws and regulations.

Martwick called his contribution to Johnson “coincidence more than anything else.”

“It was a personal, political position to support someone I’ve worked with,” Martwick says. “I’ve always tried to be generous to people I think are worthy because my whole political career has been people being generous to me because they think I’m worthy.”

Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, which has an ownership stake in the Sun-Times, says the CFL directed its 300 affiliates, including the CTU, which races it intended to get involved in. The Johnson-Boykin race was among its priorities.

“The CFL’s fight with Richard Boykin was very public,” Reiter says. “I personally supported Brandon running for that office. He was a good candidate who was going to work hard, had roots in the community.”

Johnson says his $15,000 to Collins was to support a fellow progressive who supports working people: “It’s not like millionaires and billionaires are giving to our platforms.”

Sigcho-Lopez says he gave to Collins’ campaign because he wants a “strong ally in Springfield.”

Sigcho-Lopez, who’s also an SEIU Local 73 steward, says the money wasn’t given on behalf of the union: “This is my contribution. That came from me.”

Morita, who also was a labor organizer for the SEIU, says of her $5,000 contribution to Collins: “She’s a young organizer, and I tend to support that.”

Contributing: Nader Issa

Josina Morita, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner.Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Josina Morita, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner who got $5,000 from SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana and then, less than a month later, gave the same amount to Lakesia Collins’ campaign.

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