CHICAGO — Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson said he wasn't trying to buy anyone's vote when he handed out nearly $300,000 in cash and checks to South Side churchgoers Sunday, to help pay for property taxes .
During an interview Wednesday, Wilson told WGN News, "The money that I give away is my own personal money. I give away roughly about $300,000 a year to the people on the streets. They are asking for food, helping senior citizens pay light bills, gas bills, and in this case, it's property taxes. "
The Illinois State Board of Elections said Wilson didn't break any campaign finance laws because the money came from his non-profit foundation and “there was no quid pro quo.”
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. They must not be organized for the benefit of private interests and are restricted in how many political activities they can conduct. Wilson said he organized the giveaway to assist homeowners who are struggling to pay their property tax bills.
"Why should I stop helping people on the street that don't have money to buy food?" Wilson said. "I don't think I have to make a choice for helping people."
Scott Winslow, a spokesman 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 received a check had previously filled out an application form, the spokesman said.
Wilson is facing public criticism from those who believe there should be a clear line distinguishing a private individual from a mayoral candidate.
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.
“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!”