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Ald. Michele Smith Says Paid Role With Arts Foundation Dates Back to 2008

By Paul Biasco | February 17, 2015 8:43am
 Ald. Michele Smith is under fire for what opponents say was improper disclosure of a $72,000-per-year consulting job with a nonprofit whose board she sits on.
Ald. Michele Smith is under fire for what opponents say was improper disclosure of a $72,000-per-year consulting job with a nonprofit whose board she sits on.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

LINCOLN PARK — A $72,000-a-year side job held by Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) that has been used by opponents running against her for alderman dates back several years further than previously reported.

Candidates running against the first-term Lincoln Park alderman have claimed her 2013 consulting job with a charitable foundation makes her less than a full-time alderman. Smith said that's not true — and also said her paid stint with the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts dates back to 2008.

Her name, however, only appears on foundation records as getting paid since 2013. The records list an unnamed "contractor" in 2011 and 2012 that Smith said was her.

The suburban foundation is run by Helen Coburn Meier, a longtime local actress, and her husband, Tim, an artist. Between 2006 and 2010, they donated  more than $360,000 to Smith's campaigns, according to state records.

Smith lost in a runoff during her first campaign for alderman in 2007.

In an interview with DNAinfo Chicago, Smith said her role with the nonprofit foundation dates back to 2008 and that she has been paid $72,000 annually since then.

Those payments of $6,000 per month continue today on top of Smith's $108,000 salary as alderman.

The foundation's 990 nonprofit IRS forms, however, indicate there were no payments made to anyone in 2008, 2009 or 2010.

Multiple calls and emails requesting comment from the foundation were not returned over the past week. The status of the nonprofit was not in good standing with the Secretary of State's office, meaning it did not file the required paperwork for the last year.

Smith said she was brought on in 2008 to help the then 2-year-old foundation "professionalize" the work it wanted to do. That included helping launch a website in 2008 and assisting in choosing artists for cash awards from the foundation.

Smith said her role had become more of a "retainer" and that she acted as a consultant on evenings and weekends when needed.

"I helped them vet the artists and I continue to do so today," Smith said. "Finding the artists, watching the artists, these awards are, in their minds, mini-MacArthurs [genius grants]. You can't apply for these."

The foundation began awarding grants in 2006, according to its website, but was not incorporated as a nonprofit until December 2008.

Smith was listed as a director on each of the Wilmette-based nonprofit's available tax forms dating back to 2009, but 2013 was the first year she was listed as receiving income from the foundation. The 2013 form listed her as a director earning $84,000.

The foundation's previous years' tax records included a $60,000 payment to an unnamed "contractor" in 2012 and $72,000 to a "contractor" in 2011.

Smith said the form indicating she made $84,000 in 2013 was a mistake and she should have been paid for her role as a consultant rather than director. That form indicated Smith worked 40 hours a week, which was also in error, she said.

"What happened is the tax consultant made a mistake," Smith said. "I'm a lawyer. I was surprised at this as anybody."

Smith says she was the contractor listed in the documents for 2011 and 2012. And she said 2013's form should have listed her receiving $0 for her role as director and again should have listed $72,000 for her as a contractor.

Smith provided documents showing that she disclosed the role as required by the city's ethics ordinance over the past four years, but those disclosures do not list the name of the foundation.

Smith listed the type of organization as a "consulting practice," the name of the organization as "Michele Smith," the address as 2626 N. Lakeview Ave. and her position as "independent consultant" in both 2011 and 2012.

City records show that 18 alderman filed statements indicating they had an outside income in excess of $2,500 in 2011. No later years were available in the city's record database.

Of those 18 aldermen, Smith was the only not to list the organization that was paying her.

Richard Superfine, legal counsel for the city's Board of Ethics, refused to answer what is required of aldermen on the Chicago Statements of Financial Interests form, which is a publicly available document.

Superfine, in an email, wrote "... the Board is empowered to issue advisory opinions only to those persons who have legal standing to ask for one, namely City employees and elected officials, or lobbyists, vendors or others directly involved in situations covered under the City's Ethics Code (or any of their attorneys.)"

Two days after the request of Superfine, Smith's campaign emailed a letter to DNAinfo from an election attorney dated Feb. 13 with answers regarding the financial interest form.

The attorney, Richard Means, wrote that because the Meier Foundation does not do business with the City of Chicago, Smith had no obligation to list the name of her clients as a consultant on the disclosure form. He also said Smith was receiving her income from her consulting practice as a sole proprietor at her home address.

"As soon as I became alderman, I have disclosed it in every one of my filings," Smith said. "I have been completely open and transparent about this."

In 2013, the city's financial interest filing form changed and included a line asking if the employee serves on any board or commission.  Smith listed she was the "board secretary" for the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts in 2013 and 2014.

"I've always exposed that I had income from a public source," she said. "It's been upfront and a lot of people know about it."

Ed Burnes, an attorney and supporter of Caroline Vickrey's campaign to unseat Smith, sent letters to the Illinois Attorney General's office as well as the IRS urging them to investigate Smith's financial disclosures last week.

Vickrey said she did not direct the letters being sent. "We obviously have common interest," Vickrey said.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General's office said the office received the complaint, and plan to review it.

Smith said her relationship to the Meiers began with involvement in the Chicago Walkers Club, a race walking organization, and said that she has no family ties with the Meiers. Outside of the foundation, there are no other business ties, she added.

"We are dear friends," Smith said.

Helen Meier told the Tribune that Smith is a "dear friend and dedicated supporter of the arts."

The Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts has awarded $800,000 over the course of its existence, according to Smith.

The Meiers support the foundation with their own personal funds, according to tax returns.

In the past, the foundation has awarded no-strings-attached grants to mid-career artists who push the artistic envelope.

Past recipients have included Jim Lasko, founding artistic director of the Redmoon Theatre; Mark Messing, composer and founder of Mucca Pazza; and Hallie Gordon, director of the Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults.

"I have a more than full-time job as alderman and I have an even more full life than that and I get paid for it and it is work and it's important work," Smith said. "The foundation has been in existence for seven years. It has a long way to go and the artists are very grateful for it."

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