Before the Aurora City Council voted to approve a slew of taxpayer-funded grants to local businesses last month, Mayor Richard Irvin said he’d heard repeatedly how “professional and precise” the staffers overseeing the program were.
“This speaks volumes to the folks we have on our team. (They) vetted every applicant,” Irvin said. “Each applicant met the qualifications or didn’t. Simple as that.”
After Irvin recused himself from the vote and left the room, the council swiftly approved the grants to aid businesses suffering lingering effects from the COVID-19 pandemic — including $10,000 for the furniture store owned by Irvin’s girlfriend, Laura Ayala-Clarke.
A review of the grant application for Laura’s Furniture shows the company misrepresented whether it had previously received COVID-related government funding.
The store’s application form, obtained by WTTW News, says “N/A” under a section asking if the furniture business ever obtained money from the city, county, state or federal government due to the pandemic.
But records show Laura’s Furniture received $10,000 from Illinois’ Business Interruption Grants program in 2020, which the state says was designed to provide “economic relief for small businesses hit hardest by COVID-19.”
Ayala-Clarke did not respond to requests for comment. When WTTW News visited the store earlier this week, an employee said Ayala-Clarke was not there.
A city of Aurora spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The application for the Aurora grant, signed by a man listed as the furniture store’s manager, says “the applicant declares that under penalty of perjury that the information provided is true and correct.”
The application also asks for a “narrative of economic impacts affecting the business substantiating request for grant funds.”
While two other grant applications reviewed by WTTW News include items like extensive descriptions of business operations, receipts and professionally prepared profit and loss sheets, Laura’s Furniture submitted just four sentences justifying the request for taxpayer money.
“My business suffered immensely from having to be closed during COVID. Just in the year of 2021-2022 I hade (sic) over $22,000 in losses,” the letter reads. “My business has still not rebounded especially during this time of inflation. The Re-Start grant would be very helpful to replenish some of what was lost.”
Despite the application’s reference to Laura’s Furniture being shut down during COVID-19, a Facebook post from March 31, 2020, tells prospective customers “we are OPEN!” and touts the store’s health and safety policies.
Under the stay-at-home order earlier that month issued by Governor J.B. Pritzker in the first days of the COVID-19 crisis, nonessential businesses — including furniture stores — were ordered to close to the public and only perform minimum basic operations needed to do things like maintain inventory, process payroll and ensure employees could work from home.
The application also asks companies to “demonstrate losses by contrasting revenues calendar years 2022, 2021, and 2020 to those earned in 2019.”
The submission from Laura’s Furniture only includes an unsigned profit and loss sheet for January 2021 through June 2022, with the years handwritten on the otherwise typed document.
WTTW News previously reported on the personal ties between grant recipients and Aurora officials. Another company that’s received more than $83,000 in taxpayer cash, the Aurora Business Center, is co-owned by the husband of the city’s director of cyber and technology and two men who were also involved in a consulting business that Irvin quietly started in 2020.
“It’s a fair, transparent, and equitable process,” Irvin said of the grant program at a city council meeting last month.
But critics say these kinds of deals are all too common in Aurora.
“There’s an insider’s club, a clique, and if you’re on the inside and you’re part of that ‘Team Irvin’, you are going to get more lucrative deals,” said newly elected Aurora Ald. John Laesch.