Ethics Board Reduces Campaign Finance Fine Levied Against Ald. Austin From $145K to $5K

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward) will have to pay just $5,000 to resolve charges that she accepted $48,500 in excessive campaign contributions from a company doing business with the city, in violation of city law, the Chicago Board of Ethics ruled unanimously Monday. 

Austin will also have to return the improper campaign contribution to Benchmark Construction Co., according to the board’s ruling.

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In January, the Ethics Board unanimously voted to fine Austin $145,500 for accepting the excessive contributions. It was the first time the board levied the maximum fine allowed for violations of the city’s campaign finance law—three times the amount of the improper campaign contributions.

Austin, the second-longest serving alderman on the City Council, could not be immediately reached for comment from WTTW News on Monday evening.

The improper contribution was made by Bartlett-based Benchmark Construction Co. Inc. The Ethics Board fined the firm $5,000.

The board demanded that Austin repay the improper contribution several times before taking action in January. The firm also asked for its contribution to be returned, according to Ethics Board records. Representatives of Benchmark could not be reached Monday evening.

Steve Berlin, the executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, said the board decided to reduce the fine for Austin by more than 96% “after considering the equities of the situation.” 

The alderman’s fine is now “equal [to] the amount [the board] levied on the company that made the contribution that violated the law in the first place,” Berlin said.

The board’s discussion of the matter took place in closed session, as allowed by its rules.

Companies and people doing business with the city are limited to contributing $1,600 to any one candidate per year, according to the city’s campaign finance ordinance.

The law, changed in 2012 by the City Council, holds both the person or firm making the contribution as well as the elected official who accepted the contribution responsible for the infraction. In addition, violations of the law can trigger penalties of between $1,000 and $5,000, or three times the amount of the excessive contribution—whichever is greater.

Benchmark won 80 contracts with the city’s Departments of Water Management and Aviation dating back to 1993, according to records kept by the city’s Department of Procurement Services.

That includes four contracts worth more than $93.5 million each to rebuild the city’s aging water mains in four sections of the city.

Since 2000, the firm has made approximately $430,000 in contributions to candidates for office in Illinois, including nearly two dozen current and former aldermen, as well as several candidates for mayor and city treasurer, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

The improper contributions were made to the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Org. Committee, which raised funds for Austin’s campaigns for Democratic ward committeeperson, a post she held from 1995 to 2019. 

The excessive contributions were made in November 2017 and August 2018, records show.

Austin failed to gather enough valid signatures to qualify for the 2019 ballot and was replaced by Preston Brown Jr. as committeeperson. Austin has been an alderman since 1994. 

In June 2019, the FBI raided her ward office, hauling away boxes and files. Austin has not been charged with a crime, and she denies wrongdoing. The investigation centers on the construction and sale of a West Pullman home to Austin by a developer in her ward, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In August 2019, WBEZ reported that federal prosecutors subpoenaed records related to all three of the campaign committees controlled by Austin: 34th Ward Regular Democratic Org., Citizens for Carrie M. Austin-Alderman 34th Ward and Friends of Carrie Austin 34th Ward Committeeman. That subpoena requested the documents in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation.

The 34th Ward Regular Democratic Org., which accepted and did not return the improper contributions, had approximately $8,300 in cash on hand, according to its most recent filing with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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