In her first run for statewide office, Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza hustled across Illinois on Labor Day weekend, marching in parades on the city’s Southeast Side and in Rock Island to show solidarity with union members.
Just a few weeks before that, though, Mendoza’s Democratic campaign for state comptroller accepted a contribution from an O’Hare Airport contractor who has feuded with organized labor for years.
Republican Comptroller Leslie Munger called on Mendoza to give back $1,000 from former Chicago cop and janitorial contractor Richard Simon. Despite heavy union opposition, Simon’s United Maintenance Co. Inc. landed a five-year, $99.4 million deal with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration in 2012.
In calling on Mendoza to return the Aug. 12 contribution from Simon, the Munger campaign cited his company’s recent settlement of a federal wage-theft lawsuit filed on behalf of O’Hare janitors. Without admitting wrongdoing, United Maintenance agreed last month to fork over more than $845,000 to settle the case.
United Maintenance says its employees at O’Hare receive an average of $14.12 an hour — with some making as much as $18 an hour — plus benefits.
Munger also called on Mendoza to refund a campaign contribution from a contractor for a local charter school chain that’s come under scrutiny from federal investigators.
Mendoza’s political fund received $1,000 shortly before the 2011 city election from Ertugrul Gurbuz — a northwest suburban businessman whose Core Group Inc. does business with Des Plaines-based Concept Schools.
Federal agents raided Gurbuz’s home in Elk Grove Village and his company’s offices in Mount Prospect in 2014, on the same day they served a search warrant at Concept’s headquarters.
According to court records, investigators suspected Core Group was the biggest beneficiary of a long-running scheme to defraud a federal grant program that directed millions of dollars to Concept.
Gurbuz and his lawyer, former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. No charges have been filed in the investigation of Concept, which runs four nonunion schools in Chicago with local taxpayer funding.
Mendoza has visited Concept’s charter campus in Rogers Park, filming a testimonial video in 2012 for the Chicago Math and Science Academy at 7212 N. Clark St.
At the time, the school was fighting an ultimately unsuccessful effort to unionize its teachers.
Before becoming city clerk, when she was a state representative, Mendoza sponsored a resolution in Springfield lauding the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Concept has ties to Gulen’s global movement.
And Mendoza travelled to Turkey twice, in 2008 and 2009, as a guest of the Gulen-led Niagara Foundation of Chicago, according to state records.
The Turkish government alleges Gulen and his followers were behind a failed coup attempt in July. Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, has denied involvement in the coup.
The Niagara Foundation’s acting executive director, Hakan Berberoglu, gave $2,000 to Mendoza’s campaign last year.
“My wife and I strongly believe that Susana has always been a great public servant, a very successful city clerk and will be a comptroller we have been waiting for,” Berberoglu says.
Mendoza declined an interview request. In a statement, her campaign manager said Mendoza’s father was “a proud union pipe-fitter” and that Munger’s campaign has received millions of dollars in campaign cash from Gov. Bruce Rauner and two wealthy allies.
“No one is going to fight harder for working families than Susana when she is comptroller,” campaign manager Lauren Peters said. “Unlike her opponent, Leslie Munger, she will be a stopgap to Gov. Rauner’s reckless tactics in undermining the well-being of hard-working families and children in order to advance his political agenda.”
The statement from Peters didn’t address the contributions from Simon, Gurbuz or Berberoglu or explain Mendoza’s relationships with Concept and the Niagara Foundation.
“Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza is asking voters to trust her with the state’s checkbook, but these contributions create real questions about her judgment,” said Munger’s campaign manager, Phillip Rodriguez. “She can show her commitment to ethical behavior by returning those contributions.”