Willie Wilson’s money giveaways raise new legal questions with mayoral bid

CHICAGO — Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson says he wasn't trying to buy anyone's vote when he handed out $300,000 to churchgoers on Chicago’s South Side Sunday.

The millionaire businessman said Sunday's appearance at the New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church was nothing more than "one of the biggest property tax relief assistance" events of the year and the kind of thing he's done before.

“My wife and I have been blessed by God to be able to get a few of the material things out of life and so it’s up to us to now continually to share back with all of you all and others,” Wilson told church members during the event.

An aide to Wilson said the businessman gave away $300,000 to 2,000 people through the Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation, a 501(c)(3). Such organizations are tax-exempt, must not be organized for the benefit of private interests and are restricted in how much political activities they can conduct. Wilson says he organized the giveaway to assist homeowners who are struggling to pay their property tax bills.

Scott Winslow, a spokesperson for Wilson’s campaign, says the majority of the money came in the form of pre-printed checks intended to be distributed to specific people for property tax relief. Each check had someone’s name pre-printed on it, and people had to show identification. Some of the checks were unclaimed Sunday because specific individuals did not show up to the event. Everyone who was receiving a check had filled out an application form previously.

While the checks were the bulk of the money, Winslow said, Wilson also handed out cash. That money came directly from Wilson’s wallet, he said, and not the Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation. Winslow said he did not know exactly how much cash was distributed.

“He gives $100 bills to homeless people every day,” Winslow said. “He’s been doing this for nearly 30 years. He can be many things at the same time. Many people in public life have many responsibilities and he’s not giving up his philanthropic responsibilities because he’s running for mayor.”

The Illinois State Board of Elections says if the money came from Wilson’s foundation, the hand out probably doesn’t violate election laws.

“If the money came from his foundation and not his campaign committee, as has been reported, then it probably would not violate the Campaign Finance Act,” said Public Information Officer Matt Dietrich.

“I say 'probably' because we have received no formal complaint alleging any wrongdoing and we don’t issue opinions in advance of issues that may come before us if a complaint is filed with our compliance division,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich said the State Board of Election doesn’t want to speculate, though, and no complaint has yet been filed.

The Chicago Board of Elections says there doesn’t appear to have been a violation because “there was no quid pro quo” Sunday. Wilson did not ask for votes.

Jim Allen, the spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Elections, said because the election cycle has yet to formally start, technically there are no candidates for mayor. Candidates can’t even file petitions until Aug. 28.

When asked whether this kind of cash hand out would violate the rules had it happened after that date, Allen refused to comment. “We are monitoring the situation, but we have not received complaints that concern a violation of the law,” he said. If they do get a complaint, it will be turned over to the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Wilson’s campaign spokesperson insists Sunday’s appearance was not campaign related. But Chicago politicos on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns.

“What the hell? Is Bruce Rauner using Willie Wilson and Corey Brooks to buy votes???” tweeted State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, a Democrat.

New Covenant, where the event took place, is actually led by pastor Rev. Stephen J. Thurston and not Corey Brooks as Welch's tweet indicates.

“Check this out if you wonder why Illinois politicians are often a national joke,” Republican state Rep. David McSweeney said on Twitter. “How can Willie Wilson, a candidate for Mayor of Chicago, literally hand out CASH at a public event? This is so wrong!”

Wilson is known across Chicagoland for his generous charitable work. A man of deep faith, he supports various churches.

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself seeking reelection, joined Wilson at New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church at the event.

“We’re honored to help you pay your property taxes. Happy to do it,” Rauner told the crowd. But on Monday the governor raised concerns about the cash that was handed out at the event. He said he didn’t know about it beforehand.

“As far as I know none of my money got handed out yesterday. We’re checking right now to see if it did and if it did I will demand my money back,” he said.

Rauner has historically donated money to Wilson’s foundation. He says they are friends, and Rauner supports the work Wilson does to help people pay their property taxes.

“In the last month or two I gave another $100k at his request to help people pay their property taxes,” Rauner said.

“Property taxes are out of control in the state of Illinois. They are much too high. And some of the worst property taxes in America are in the African American community.”

But the governor says he thought his money would be given to people who were pre-vetted – only people who needed help with their property tax bills. He said he did not want his money to be handed out randomly.

“I think the idea of handing out cash if you’re a candidate for office is outrageous. It should not happen,” he said. “I learned after the fact and I was pretty upset it was going on.”

Reached by phone, F. Scott Winslow, Wilson for Mayor campaign spokesman, told WGN News Sunday’s event was “absolutely not” a campaign event. Winslow says since Wilson launched his second bid for Chicago mayor, he’s probably given away $500,000.

Winslow insists the campaign is not violating any campaign finance laws since the campaign was not involved. He said he didn’t think any of the governor’s money was distributed in cash Sunday, but there was no way to know how much of the governor’s money was part of the hand out.

Once people contribute to Wilson’s foundation “all the money gets mixed together,” he said.

He also said there is a Chinese wall between the foundation and Wilson’s campaign. He said they bent over backwards Sunday to avoid any appearance of vote influencing, even removing political signs from nearby yards.

But election lawyer Burt Odelson says that might not be enough, particularly in a city like Chicago with such an infamous history of election tampering and vote buying.

“It doesn’t even come close to passing the smell test. To be really honest with you,” Odelson said. “It is not okay. Especially here in Chicago it’s not okay.”

Odelson, who also represents mayoral candidate Paul Vallas, says he gives Wilson credit for helping the poor. He even calls him a “good man.”

“But you can’t do that during an election time after you’re a candidate,” he said. “Because it violates or looks like it violates the statute, the criminal statute.”

The criminal statute in the election code says you can’t give money to people to influence them to vote. It’s a class four felony.

Both Wilson and Rauner say they never asked anyone to vote on Sunday. Wilson is now calling on other candidates for mayor to reach into their pockets to help the poor.

“Why isn’t Rahm giving money to the poor people of Illinois?” Winslow asked.