Aurora Mayor and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Richard Irvin supported a successful 2018 effort to shutter the Aurora Election Commission – a move that gives him a role in deciding whether certain candidates stay on city ballots.
Irvin, along with a group of his political allies and donors, made up the vast majority of funding behind the Close the Commission political committee, according to public records. That committee worked to get voters to back the idea of abolishing the Aurora Election Commission, which they did by a margin of more than 1,400 votes.
The commission had a similar function to the Chicago Board of Elections, including registering voters, ruling on challenges to candidates’ nominating petitions and administering elections. Supporters said Aurora’s unusual location astride multiple counties meant the commission was a valuable way to bring election administration for the state’s second-largest city under one roof. And they lauded the commission’s efficiency and fiscal responsibility. But commission opponents – who had made multiple prior attempts to dissolve the commission – said the respective counties were ready and willing to administer elections, and to ensure Aurora voters weren’t disenfranchised.
“Mayor Irvin is proud of his strong record in cutting wasteful spending and eliminating meaningless units of government like the Aurora Election Commission,” Irvin’s gubernatorial campaign spokesperson Eleni Demertzis said in a statement to WTTW News. “As Governor, he will finally bring responsible leadership to this state by fighting to reduce wasteful spending, enact permanent tax cuts and put more money in the pocketbooks of Illinois families.”
With the commission now shut down, state law outlines a panel of city leaders who determine if a municipal candidate facing challenges is eligible for the ballot, an approach that’s common throughout Illinois. The people who now make up the electoral board overseeing ballot disputes in Aurora are Irvin, the city clerk he appointed, and the senior-most member of the City Council.
Last year, Irvin and the other members of the board ruled aldermanic candidate Ron Woerman could stay on the ballot after he faced challenges that he hadn’t lived in Aurora long enough and had irregularities in his nominating petitions. Despite objections that Irvin and Woerman were friends, the Aurora Beacon-News reported an attorney advising the board said Irvin did not need to recuse himself. The following month, Irvin transferred $500 from his mayoral campaign fund to Woerman’s aldermanic campaign fund. Woerman was eventually elected to the Aurora City Council. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Woerman is part of a complicated web of campaign cash and lucrative city deals tied to Irvin. Woerman, his brother Russell, and four others are part of a development team that in 2019 landed a deal to redevelop the long-vacant Copley Hospital site. That group stands to receive up to $15 million in Aurora city incentives, with the potential for millions more.
A WTTW News analysis found that the companies and individuals connected to the massive project donated $66,636 to Irvin’s mayoral campaign fund, $35,000 to a political action committee called Build R Future run by Irvin’s mayoral campaign manager Dennis Cook, and $22,150 to the campaign fund of Irvin’s former private practice law partner Brittany Pedersen, a two-time Democratic candidate for the Kane County bench.
Irvin’s ex-wife, Crystal Rollins, also works for one of the companies that’s part of the redevelopment deal. Through a spokesperson, its CEO Michael Poulakidas – also a longtime Irvin donor and friend – said Rollins joined the company in a full-time position in mid-March and “has had no role in our Aurora-based projects.”
A Familiar Pattern
A review of campaign finance records reveals a familiar pattern of donors. A total of $4,500 of the money in Close the Commission coffers came from individuals and businesses connected to the Copley Hospital redevelopment, and multiple other efforts that got big-money incentives from the city of Aurora.
Stathis Poulakidas, part of the hospital redevelopment team and brother of Irvin ally Michael Poulakidas, gave $1,000. Russell Woerman’s construction company gave $1,000. And $2,500 came from the Law Office of Michael Poulakidas – the same location that’s also been listed as campaign headquarters for Richard Irvin, Ron Woerman, and the Close the Commission committee itself.
Irvin’s own campaign fund put $2,500 toward the anti-election commission initiative. And out of 19 individual contributions, all but four of them were prior donors to Irvin’s campaign.
Another $2,500 came from Scientel Solutions, a company that got lucrative city contracts and aid from Irvin in building a controversial communications tower. Scientel also has a business relationship with the trading firm founded by Irvin’s largest donor, Ken Griffin, according to Bloomberg.
And $1,000 came from a company owned by Frank Cortese, who operates video gaming machines around the Chicago area, including in Aurora. Cortese also has ties to ex-Teamsters boss John Coli, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in a deal with the feds, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Cortese also reportedly faces getting his gambling license yanked by the state because of his relationship to Vincent DelGiudice, a bookie with ties to the mob, the Sun-Times reported.
Irvin’s spokesperson did not respond to a question from WTTW News about whether his mayoral campaign shared its donor list or other information with Close the Commission.
One of the three donors to Close the Commission that hadn’t previously given to Irvin’s mayoral fund was the law firm Odelson and Sterk, which contributed $3,000 to the effort. That firm was also hired to advise the city of Aurora on the ballot initiative – and it represented the group that gathered the signatures to get the question on the ballot. When an $18,028 bill came due, some aldermen raised questions about conflicts of interest, according to a 2018 Beacon-News article. Corporation counsel Richard Veenstra reportedly told the City Council that $6,100 of that work was related to the ballot initiative and the remainder was for other work.
Critics on the council also sounded alarms about a city-funded mailer that described the Aurora City Council as being supportive of dissolving the commission. In fact, all the City Council did was pass a resolution in support of putting the question on the ballot, and was barred by state law from taking a position on the referendum. City staff blamed it on a printer error.
The city did pay for informational mailers, which the Beacon-News reported were handled by the strategy firm run by Irvin’s mayoral campaign manager. Campaign finance records show Close the Commission also spent more than $4,600 with that same firm, and that it used the same graphics company that had previously worked on Irvin’s mayoral bid.
The Election Commission had been targeted previously by multiple unsuccessful efforts to shut it down, including calls from ex-Aurora mayor Tom Weisner. After Irvin became mayor, city of Aurora spokesperson Clayton Muhammad says Weisner approached Irvin to ensure that doing away with the commission was “a priority of the new administration.”
“That initiative in 2017 led to a cross-section of community support, including more than 1,500 people signing the petitions to place the referendum on the ballot,” Muhammad told WTTW News in an email.
The Election Commission’s former executive director, Linda Fechner, told WTTW News that Irvin pledged his support for the commission’s work after he became mayor, and that she was blindsided when she found out he’d given campaign cash to the anti-commission effort. As for why people wanted to dissolve the commission, Fechner said her understanding was that it was “purely a dollars and cents thing.”
That tracks with public statements from mayoral staff describing the commission as a drain on Aurora finances, and a city-funded mailer that described a “yes” vote on the referendum as a way to “save approximately $700,000” and a “no” vote as supporting “the status quo.”
Calls For Reform
While the Aurora Electoral Board on which Irvin serves was created per state law – and the format is mirrored across many municipalities in Illinois – reform advocates say it points to yet another way Illinois election law could be improved.
“The people who are sitting on these electoral boards, and who are deciding who gets to stay on the ballot when these petition challenges come to them, have a direct stake in who wins these elections,” said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois. “They’re going to be biased towards their friends and their allies, who may well be incumbents, and they’re going to be less disposed to judge favorably challengers or people that they don’t think will vote for them if they manage to get elected into office.”
Kaplan also says the criteria under which members of electoral boards like Aurora’s are supposed to recuse themselves because of a conflict of interest are narrow and inconsistently applied.
“Numerous studies have shown over the years that you get cases where conflicted members of the electoral board, who really shouldn’t be ruling on certain cases, do end up ruling on certain cases,” Kaplan said. “This is not a good system for voters.”