Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday insisted he didn’t know mayoral candidate Willie Wilson would be handing out cash at a South Side church on Sunday.
And the Republican governor contends “as far as I know,” none of the $200,000 he’s given to the millionaire businessman’s foundation over the past year to help people pay their property taxes was in the cash Wilson handed out at a weekend event. If it was, the governor — in a heated re-election campaign — said he’ll demand it be returned to him.
Rauner tried with all his might to distance himself from the controversial event at the New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church — denouncing the cash handout despite Wilson’s campaign claiming Rauner has seen Wilson in action at a similar event in the past.
Wilson on Jan. 15 did the same — doling out cash at the same church with Rauner in attendance. But Wilson in January wasn’t yet running for mayor. Wilson announced his candidacy in early March in the Chicago Defender and filed his political organization paperwork in late March.
Should a candidate be handing out cash at a church? Wilson’s campaign said the event was actually a Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation event and the cash giveaway was a “human response” — despite it being streamed on Wilson’s mayoral campaign Facebook page.
“I think that the idea of handing out cash if you’re a candidate for office is outrageous. It should not happen,” Rauner said Monday at a Wheaton bill signing.
Rauner said he did not know Wilson was going to hand out cash and did not learn of it until after the church service despite Wilson’s foundation blasting out a Saturday press release detailing the giveaway, “for the fourth straight year.”
“I do not support that,” Rauner said.
The event wasn’t listed on Rauner’s official or campaign schedule, but the governor did have a campaign staffer in tow. The governor frequently stops by churches on Sundays in the months ahead of a campaign, and often doesn’t publicize the locations.
Wilson’s spokesman Scott Winslow said this isn’t the first time Rauner has attended an event in which Wilson has handed out cash and checks. Winslow said Wilson has been doing it for more than 20 years.
And a Wilson campaign ad called “Helping Others” is posted on Wilson’s campaign Facebook page featuring a video of Rauner crediting Wilson for being “generous.” The video was posted on June 19 and features a church banner which reads “God Reigns in 2018.” The campaign ad shows Wilson passing out money in a church.
Wilson’s campaign said it’s a “composite spot.”
“The portion where he is handing cash to a member of the church was a January 15 MLK event, before he had declared himself a candidate for mayor,” Winslow said.
“He’s a wonderful entrepreneur. He’s built his own business from scratch. He’s been very successful. And he’s very generous,” Rauner says in the ad while the camera shows Wilson handing out cash to a man in a church. “He’s taken his success and given back to the community, to help many families who need help.”
The Sunday visit to an African-American church in Chicago raised questions in both the gubernatorial and Chicago mayoral election after Rauner watched Wilson dole out stacks of cash to “struggling homeowners.”
While the event raised some eyebrows, the state’s Board of Elections said Wilson didn’t break any campaign finance laws if the money came from his foundation, and not from his campaign. And Winslow on Monday said “we did nothing wrong.”
“It’s very normal and what’s being picked up is the mudslinging of the mayoral race of Chicago,” Winslow said.
Although Rauner contended on Monday that he didn’t know cash was going to be passed out, the governor told church-goers on Sunday that he was “happy” to help them pay their property taxes and lamented that Chicagoans and those in the south suburbs were paying the highest property taxes in America.
“It’s a honor for me to join Dr. Wilson in helping those of you who are struggling to pay your property taxes,” Rauner said on Sunday. “We’re honored to help you pay your property taxes. Happy to do it.”
Winslow said Wilson has been handing out cash as an annual event for more than 20 years. He said most of the $300,000 was already earmarked to people via checks, but that Wilson “always brings stacks of cash” to help others in need.
“He’s been doing that every year. Rauner has given his foundation money and the cash from the foundation was just a tiny part of it,” Winslow said.
The governor said Wilson came to him last year and asked for a $100,000 donation for Wilson’s foundation to help families that are struggling and can’t pay their property taxes.
“I said I would. I gave him $100,000 last year … and in the last month or two I gave another $100,000 at his request to help people pay their property taxes,” Rauner said.
“As far as I know no money of mine got handed out to anyone, but we are checking right now, if it did I’m going to demand my money back,” he said.
Rauner said he thinks his donations came from his personal money. He plans to speak with Wilson about the cash handout. Rauner’s campaign on Monday said money being doled out by Wilson didn’t come from their campaign.
Vetting someone’s property tax woes and issuing them a check to help pay their taxes, “that’s a worthy cause,” Rauner said.
“Just handing out cash randomly to people, I’ve never done that, and I think it’s not a good thing to do,” Rauner said.
“It’s one thing if you’re just a person and you just want to walk around and throw money, I mean, it’s a free country. If you’re a candidate for office it’s not a proper thing to do,” he said.
Rauner said he didn’t ask anyone to vote at the church.
“I certainly did not, and I don’t know that anybody else did, but I certainly did not,” he said.
Winslow confirmed the Rauner Family Foundation has donated to Wilson’s foundation and said it’s impossible to tell whether the money given out on Sunday was part of that contribution. He declined to specify how much the Rauner family has contributed.
The Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation promoted Sunday’s event at New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church as “one of the biggest property tax relief assistance” events of the year. On its Facebook page, the foundation said Wilson would be “giving away $300,000 to struggling homeowners.”
In the end, Wilson told the Chicago Sun-Times he gave away closer to $200,000 in checks and cash. In a phone interview, he called it “a normal thing for me.”
“We’ve been paying people’s property taxes for years,” Wilson said, adding that the money was also meant to help people pay for smaller expenses, like food or bus passes.
The Illinois State Board of Elections said money being handed out from his foundation and not his campaign committee wouldn’t violate the Campaign Finance Act. Spokesman Matt Dietrich said there have been no formal complaints alleging any wrongdoing.
“If someone files a complaint with us related to this, we will begin the complaint process,” Dietrich said in an email.
Wilson is one of 10 hoping to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel as he vies for his third-term. Wilson in April made a $100,000 contribution to his own campaign — a donation that lifts the caps on campaign contributions for all candidates in Chicago’s crowded 2019 race for mayor.