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Loophole Lets Ald. Jason Ervin Funnel City Contractors' Cash to Aldermen

By Sam Cholke | April 1, 2015 5:43am
 Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) is taking money from city contractors through a special political committee, which he is using to support Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) and others in runoff elections.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) is taking money from city contractors through a special political committee, which he is using to support Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) and others in runoff elections.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

HYDE PARK — Using a loophole in the city’s campaign finance laws, 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin has found a way to get contributions from companies with city contracts to aldermen in tough runoff races.

The State Board of Elections already is asking questions about I.M.P.A.C., a political action committee run by Ervin that collected $66,900 from well-connected developers and construction firms on a single day, Feb. 12. The committee in turn handed over $17,500 29th Ward to Ald. Deborah Graham the same day.

The list of 20 donors that contributed to I.M.P.A.C. includes Safeway Construction, which gave $9,500. Safeway is part of a development team that is asking for $1 million in TIF funds from the City Council for a $12 million housing development in Ervin’s ward.

John Bonds Jr., CEO of Safeway Construction, said he couldn’t remember giving the money and declined to comment further.

Under city law, Safeway is barred from giving more than $1,500 in one year to a candidate running for office in Chicago. But nothing appears to stop the company from giving to Ervin’s political action committee, which then can dole out money to Ervin’s Council allies.

"The rules you have to follow are the state rules, not the city rules," said Tom Bowen, a spokesman for Ervin's campaign who has worked on campaign finance for the alderman. Bowen formerly was Mayor Rahm Emanuel's top political operative.

 Businesses with state or city contracts face no extra limitations under state law on how they can contribute to political action committees . There are no rules barring Ervin from being the only officer of the committee and asking for donations from Safeway Construction and other groups affected by ordinances being considered by the Council.

Bowen said that Ervin himself has not taken any money from I.M.P.A.C. and said forming such a committee is part of building a political operation.

"He's just doing the same thing other politicians have done," Bowen said, adding that other aldermen also run political action committees, and the practice is becoming increasingly common since becoming widely used in federal elections.

Filings with the Illinois State Board of Elections show Ervin set up the I.M.P.A.C. fund to support Graham and 37th Ward Ald. Emma Mitts as a separate fund from his own candidate committee and the 28th Ward Democratic Organization. Ervin is the only officer of I.M.P.A.C. and runs the committee out of a suite next to his aldermanic office at 2602 W. 16th St., according to state filings.

Andrew Nauman, deputy director in the division of campaign disclosure at the Illinois State Board of Elections, said there is nothing under state law that stops Ervin’s I.M.P.A.C fund from accepting donations from city contractors.

“You’re just not allowed to earmark contributions,” Nauman said of the state’s pay-to-play laws, last updated after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was ousted from office.

Nauman said the state is looking into the fund now because it may have been delinquient in making mandatory filings is not properly named. He said the committee could be forced to absolve or forfeit up to half of its funds for the violations, but more likely would face a modest fine.

He said any contributions from city contractors are monitored, and punishments for violations of contribution rules are enforced by the Chicago Board of Ethics, a panel of seven members appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Richard Superfine, an attorney for the Board of Ethics, declined to comment on the specifics of Ervin’s campaign fundraising and said that only those directly affected by the city’s ethics code or their attorneys can ask for an opinion on discrepancies in campaign finances.

Many of the 20 donors declined to comment or did not return calls for comment on what happened on Feb. 12 that prompted them all to donate to Ervin’s fund. Bowen said he couldn't say why the donations were all made on the same day, but said that it was likely that date was when all the checks were deposited.

Phillip Craig Johnson, of Johnson & Lee Architects and Planners, who gave $5,000 to I.M.P.A.C., said he couldn’t remember donating the money or when he was asked to contribute.

Johnson designed the Ping Tom Boathouse for the Chicago Park District. He also has been hired to work on a new Mariano’s in Bronzeville on CHA land and the $23 million Strand Hotel renovation, which is getting $12.4 million in city subsidies, including $2.7 million in TIF funding.

He said he doesn’t think his work on city-backed projects limits his ability to support candidates.

“We have supported aldermen just the same way as every other business in the city of Chicago,” Johnson said, adding that he has a relationship with Ervin from working on projects in the 28th Ward.

Graham and Mitts, who received $5,000 from I.M.P.A.C. on Feb. 21, did not return calls for comment.

According to state filings, $28,500 of the fund’s $66,900 has been distributed to aldermen including Graham, Mitts, 7th Ward Ald. Natashia Holmes,  21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins, 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran and 18th Ward Ald. Lona Lane.

All are facing challengers in the runoff election.

Ervin himself was unchallenged in the lead-up to the Feb. 24 election after getting his seven challengers knocked off the ballot.

He has continued to fundraise for his own candidate committee throughout the election, and on Feb. 21 he was at a fundraiser for 24th Ward candidate Michael Scott Jr. at Homan Square Atrium, 3517 W. Arthington St., according to posts and pictures on Facebook.

"Ald. Ervin paid for the space on my behalf and hosted the fundraiser, and I have no knowledge of the inner workings of Ald. Ervin's fundraising," Scott said. "It was not a joint fundraiser. It was done solely on behalf of Citizens for Scott."

None of the contributors to I.M.P.A.C. made a contribution to Scott's campaign.

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