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Preckwinkle campaign scrambles to explain $10K donation Burke allegedly muscled

Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president and mayoral candidate. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Toni Preckwinkle’s mayoral campaign scrambled Friday to explain why a $10,000 campaign contribution that Ald. Edward Burke (14th) allegedly muscled from a Burger King franchise owner was publicly reported only after the feds lowered the boom on Chicago’s most powerful and longest-serving alderman.

Preckwinkle aides also provided documentation to substantiate their claim that the entire $10,000 contribution Burke allegedly pressured fast-food kingpin Shoukat Dhanani to donate as part of a fundraiser Burke hosted at his home for Preckwinkle’s re-election as county board president was returned to Dhanani in a matter of days, contrary to the government’s version of events.

The federal complaint says Dhanani — whose fast-food empire touts itself as the second-largest Burger King franchisee in the world — made a $10,000 donation to Preckwinkle at Burke’s request and that “correspondence provided by” him and a second Burger King official “reflects that the committee confirmed the contribution was made.”

Preckwinkle’s committee never reported any donation from Dhanani until Thursday, the day the criminal charges were announced against Burke. This appears to be a violation of state election laws.

Late Thursday, Preckwinkle’s campaign staff filed new documents showing they received $10,000 from Dhanani on Jan. 12, 2018, and then immediately returned the entire $10,000 because the state election laws capped donations at $5,600.

The feds insist that Preckwinkle kept the legal limit of $5,600, while returning the excess contribution of $4,400.

On Friday, the Preckwinkle campaign produced two screen shots to substantiate its claim that the criminal complaint was in error.

The first showed a $10,000 donation from Dhanani’s VISA card on Jan. 10, 2018. The second showed that $10,000 was credited back to Dhanani’s VISA account six days later.

“I can’t speak on behalf of the federal government. I don’t know why they say” that Preckwinkle kept $5,600 of Dhanani’s donation, said John Hennelly, a senior adviser to the Preckwinkle campaign.

“All I can speak to is the fact that we have [records] and they show that a $10,000 donation was sent to our account, it was over the limits, and we returned it within a matter of a few days. Period.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment.

Hennelly said the Preckwinkle campaign waited until after Burke was charged to report the donation from Dhanani to the Illinois State Board of Elections, as required by law, because, “The money never stayed in the account.”

“It came in. It was pending. We rejected it. And it went back. It was a non-event. It was zero-sum. Nothing got added to our account. Nothing got taken out. The staff person involved didn’t report it because we didn’t take the money. We didn’t accept it,” Hennelly said.

The law requires donations to be reported, even if they are subsequently returned or refunded.

Why didn’t the Preckwinkle campaign follow the letter of the law?

“In retrospect, it would have been better if he had reported it then. But he didn’t because he felt like, because the donation was rejected, he didn’t need to file the report,” Hennelly said.

“We have an election law attorney. She advised us to report this now as a matter of just being more transparent. Whether failing to report a donation that we rejected is a violation, I’ll leave that up to other people to decide.”

Mayoral candidate Dorothy Brown is already seizing on the oversight. She demanded Friday that the State Board of Elections audit and fine Preckwinkle’s campaign.

Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot has demanded the U.S. Attorney’s office “investigate each and every campaign contribution” that Preckwinkle received at Burke’s home “to determine if any other contributions were extorted or otherwise tainted.”

Lightfoot has also asked that Preckwinkle keep her promise to remove Burke as head of judicial slatemaking for the Democratic Party, explain what she promised Burke in return for holding the fundraiser at his home and “disgorge” all contributions raised there.

On Friday, Hennelly said Preckwinkle has no intention of returning the $116,000 she raised at Burke’s house.

“There were a number of people there at that event who were longtime Toni supporters who have nothing to do with Burke’s activities,” Hennelly said.

But there’s a caveat.

“Toni knew nothing of Burke’s activities — and she’s appalled by them. If other people were intimidated or muscled or extorted into making donations, we hope that’s investigated and we hope it comes forward,” he said.

The tainted donation follows two other recent controversies: the firing of Preckwinkle’s chief of staff John Keller months after the county board president first heard what she calls “unsubstantiated rumors” about sexual harassment allegations against Keller, and the vehicle crash that prompted Preckwinkle to fire her security chief.

Hennelly was asked to assess the impact of all those controversies on Preckwinkle’s campaign.

“This is a donation that we rejected within a matter of a few days. I don’t think that calls into question her substantial record as a public servant,” he said.