Ald. Carrie Austin fined $145,000 after failing to refund construction contractor’s $48,500 campaign contribution overpayment

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carrie austin
Ald Carrie Austin (34th Ward)

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th ward)’s campaign committee has been assessed a $145,500 fine because it accepted a campaign contribution from a Chicago construction contractor that exceeded the legal limit by $48,500.

Benchmark Construction, which has been awarded upwards of $1.3 billion since 2010 for municipal infrastructure work, was fined $5,000, The Chicago Sun Times reports.

The much lower fine for Benchmark apparently relates to its co-operation in seeking a refund of the contribution overpayment, which it never received despite repeated efforts.  Austin had previously been chair of the city’s budget committee.

The Chicago Board of Ethics fined Austin, Chicago city council’s second-most senior member, It set tripple damages — “three s three times the excessive amount Benchmark contributed to the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Committee that Austin used to raise money for her campaigns for ward committeeperson,” the Sun Times reported.

The published report says campaign-finance reports show the committee received a $50,000 contribution from Benchmark in November 2018 and a pair of $2,500 contributions from the company in November 2017 and August 2018.

Those contributions are noted in a campaign report she amended on Jan. 16, 2020, months after federal investigators raided the alderman’s ward office, the Sun-Times reported.

“The Board of Ethics voted unanimously to assess triple damages only after the board and Benchmark attempted to resolve the issue by having the contributor receive a refund of the excessive amount contributed, $48,500.”

Neither Austin or Benchmark appeared before the board to refute the violation. Austin served as ward boss for 24 years — until 2019, when she failed to round up enough petition signatures to get on the ballot. She could not be reached for comment.

“At its December meeting, the board directed that the contributor and committee must either appear before the board at its January meeting and explain why a refund of the excess amount contributed has not been effected or need to be effected,” the Ethics Board report states.

“Because this did not occur, but the contributor did make another attempt to effect a refund, the board at its January, 2021 meeting voted unanimously to determine that the contributor and committee each violated the political contribution limits,” the Ethics Board report states.

Most of Benchmark’s city work has been to repair and replace sewers and water mains, including about $217 million in contracts since October, 2020.

Companies and individuals doing business with the city are limited to contributions of $1,600 per year, per candidate.

The Sun-Times reports that neither Benchmark nor Austin responded to invitations to provide comments.

Here is the ethics board report:

At its October 2020 meeting, the Board found probable cause to conclude that a company that was doing business with the City made two (2) campaign contributions to “committees of aldermen” in excess of the amount permitted by the Ordinance.

At its October 2020 meeting, the Board found probable cause to conclude that a company that was doing business with the City made two (2) campaign contributions to “committees of aldermen” in excess of the amount permitted by the Ordinance. In Case 20026.CF.1, the Board and contributor attempted to resolve the matter by having the contributor receive a refund of the excessive amount contributed ($48,500), per §2-156-445(d).

At its December 2020 meeting, the Board directed that the contributor and committee must either appear before the Board at its January 2021 meeting and explain why a refund of the excess amount contributed has not been effected, or does not need to be effected (or submit written materials explaining this) or the Board could determine there was a violation of the Ordinance, which could subject both the contributor and committee to fines of up to three times (3x) the excessive amount contributed, per §2-156-465(b)(5).

Because this did not occur, but the contributor did make another attempt to effect a refund, the Board, at its January 2021 meeting, voted unanimously to determine that the contributor and committee each violated the political contribution limits in §2-156-445(a). It assessed a fine of $145,500 against the political committee, the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Committee, and assessed a $5,000 fine against the contributor, Benchmark Construction Company, Inc.

34th Ward Alderman Austin has several political committees, two of which support candidacies for committeeperson of either her Ward or her State legislative district. One of those committees is a party-political committee, the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Committee, which, per its filings with the Illinois State Board of Elections, could support either or both of the Alderman’s candidacies for alderman or ward or legislative district committeeperson. In Case 20026.CF.2, after the parties received the Board’s probable cause letter, the excess amount ($1,000) was properly refunded to the contributor and the case is closed by operation of law

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