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Embattled alderman and her kids’ troubled finances: a trail of bankruptcies

Now facing federal scrutiny, Chicago Ald. Carrie Austin and her 6 children and stepchildren have filed 14 times to get out from under debts including taxes and unpaid parking fines. Most cases were filed while they were on City Hall’s payroll.

Ald. Carrie Austin.
Ald. Carrie Austin and her six children and stepchildren have filed for bankruptcy a total of 14 times in two decades to get out from under debts that included federal taxes, court fees, highway tolls and city of Chicago parking fines.
Fran Spielman / Sun-Times

Ald. Carrie Austin and her six children and stepchildren have declared bankruptcy 14 times, often while they were holding down government jobs, largely at City Hall, records examined by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

The bankruptcy petitions filed by Austin — the longtime 34th Ward alderman who’s come under scrutiny by a federal grand jury — and by her family over the past two decades have sought to get them out from under debts including federal taxes, court fees, highway tolls and city of Chicago parking fines.

One daughter has filed for bankruptcy court protection five times. One of her sons has four cases.

An example of the family’s troubled finances: Records show City Hall once sued one of Austin’s daughters and a son-in-law for bouncing a check to pay for city stickers.

Austin’s finances have been in the spotlight since June, after she was named in a federal grand jury subpoena seeking records regarding her latest home purchase and her campaign contributions, and FBI agents lugged out files and equipment from her Far South Side Ward office.

The subpoena also sought “items related to . . . employees, family members.”

For Austin, there’s a lot of overlap there.

She had four children with her late husband, Ald. Lemuel Austin, whose Chicago City Council seat she filled after he had a fatal heart attack in 1994 at 48. All four — Kenneth L. Austin, Fatrice Austin-Geiger, Lemuettia Hicks and Lemuel D. Austin IV — have been hired for city jobs since 1992.

Her husband also had two children from a previous relationship — the current alderman’s stepchildren — who also have held government jobs: Lemuel Austin III and Deneen Towbridge.

Austin-Geiger’s husband Frederick Geiger, Hicks’ husband Cardell P. Hicks, Lemuel Austin IV’s wife Erin Kelley-Austin and Kenneth Austin’s wife, Sandra Jones, also have worked for the city, as has the alderman’s granddaughter Arnea Austin.

Carrie Austin hasn’t been charged with any crime. She heads a new city council committee on contracting equity.

Until Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office this year, Austin headed the council’s powerful budget committee — whose budget she recently overspent. When the new mayor replaced her with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), Lemuel Austin III and Erin Kelley lost their jobs.

Austin still has her granddaughter working for her.

Austin — who, like her family members, did not respond to requests for comment — has denied intervening on their behalf with City Hall.

“Because any of my children — I didn’t help them get anything, they got them on their own. Hard work,” Austin said in a Feb. 29 deposition in a lawsuit filed by a former city worker who was fired over an on-duty accident involving Austin’s son Kenneth.

The steady government paychecks that most of the Austins have had haven’t kept them from having financial troubles. Records show:

• Lemuettia Hicks, 42, has filed five times for federal bankruptcy court protection since 1998, four of those cases filed with her husband Cardell P. Hicks. In one of those cases, filed in 2004, they reported owing $1,600 for city of Chicago parking tickets, $2,400 to People’s Gas and $13,000 for child support Cardell Hicks was late in paying. They told the judge that they were netting $6,800 a month; he was working as a laborer for the city’s finance department, and she was a secretary for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. She previously has worked for the city.

By 2016, their family had moved to Arizona and filed again for bankruptcy protection, saying they couldn’t even afford the $335 bankruptcy filing fee, asking to be allowed to pay it in installments.

About $17,000 of the debt was for Cardell’s back child-support, more than $40,000 for student loans and $18,000 for a repossessed vehicle. They also owed $2,500 to the Arizona Department of Revenue.

Weeks before filing that case, the Hickses paid $1,500 to Carrie Austin at an Arizona address for a 2013 Nissan Cube. At the time, Cardell Hicks had a job and was getting about $2,300 a month in workers’ compensation. His wife was unemployed.

Lemuettia Hicks and Cardell P. Hicks.
Lemuettia Hicks and Cardell P. Hicks.
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• Kenneth Lemuel Austin Sr., 53, has filed four bankruptcies since 2000, all while working for the city Department of Streets and Sanitation and making as much as $65,000 a year as a sanitation laborer.

His second bankruptcy, in 2006, largely cited medical expenses. His third and fourth, in 2010 and 2011 — when he was off work for a string of leaves that included three disciplinary suspensions — cited thousands of dollars in back child support, more than $1,000 in unpaid tolls owed to the Illinois Tollway and a car loan from the Chicago Municipal Employees Credit Union for about $12,000.

He was sued later in 2011 after failing to make payments on a used 2007 Pontiac Grand Prix he’d financed, and, after failing to show up in court, had a $9,000 judgment issued against him.

The company suing him got a judge’s order garnishing his wages. In 2015, it found he was working for the Chicago Transit Authority, where he landed after quitting his city job before he could be fired over an internal investigation that found he crashed a city vehicle while driving on a suspended license and had a co-worker cover for him to avoid a drug test afterwards. The Austins and the city still face a lawsuit stemming from the crash.

Kenneth Austin had had his driver’s license suspended because he hadn’t made child-support payments. His license was reinstated, his mother told the Sun-Times in 2017, after she caught him up on those payments.

Since 2016, he’s been working for his mother, most recently as ward superintendent, a city job paying about $82,000 a year.

• Lemuel D. Austin IV, 39, filed for bankruptcy in 2010, saying he owed $9,000 to the IRS, $35,000 for a 2006 BMW, $6,000 for a repossessed car and $6,000 for medical bills and a series of payday loans. At the time, he was a sewer laborer for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, a job he’d held since 2000. His wife Erin R. Kelley-Austin was a secretary for the city.

The following year, Lemuel Austin IV was promoted from construction laborer to ward superintendent. The promotion came soon after he and his wife were sued by their landlord for not paying $2,695 in rent. In 2015, he was promoted again, this time to assistant commissioner, making about $106,000 a year. His wife is now a legislative aide to Austin, paid $63,000 a year.

Lemuel Austin IV served two one-week disciplinary suspensions last year and also had been disciplined in 2006.

The Chicago police arrested him on June 12, 2003, for soliciting a prostitute. He pleaded guilty and got six months of court supervision.

Frederick Geiger.
Frederick Geiger.
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• Fatrice Austin-Geiger, 48, and her husband Frederick Geiger, also 48, filed for bankruptcy in 2009, listing bills of about $13,400 to the IRS, $1,400 to People’s Gas, and $450 to the Lansing Police Department and assets including a time share in Florida. He also owed a monthly $958 child-support payment. The Geigers reported salaries of $147,000 that year from his job as a projects administrator in the Chicago Department of Buildings and hers working for the secretary of state where she works as a private secretary.

In June 2015, a $136 check the Geigers wrote for city stickers bounced. They never sent a follow-up payment in response to city notifications of the bounced check. By the time they were called to a hearing in November on an administrative citation for “failure to pay debt due and owing the city,” the costs had ballooned to $622, including late-payment fees. A hearing officer dismissed the case.

Fatrice Austin-Geiger.
Fatrice Austin-Geiger.
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The couple had lived in a house at 7720 S. Albany Ave. that Carrie Austin had helped purchase in 1995 with a mortgage guaranteed by the federal government. After the alderman signed it over to her daughter in 1998, it went into foreclosure and was sold at auction in 2000.

The daughter had gotten her first city job in 1992, when she was 21, as an administrative assistant in the aviation department. Frederick Geiger was hired as a legislative aide for the city council Finance Committee, chaired by Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), in November 1994 and moved to the buildings department in August 1995, a month before the couple got married.

Lemuel Austin III (from left), Kenneth Lemuel Austin Sr. and Lemuel Austin IV.
Lemuel Austin III (from left), Kenneth Lemuel Austin Sr. and Lemuel Austin IV.
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• Lemuel Austin III, 55, filed for bankruptcy in 2016 while working as an assistant to Carrie Austin, paid $45,900 a year. He reported owing about $3,000 to the IRS, $1,500 to People’s Gas, $2,000 to a collections agency for a cellphone company, and $100 for unpaid city parking tickets. He also had been sued by the Mark Twain Hotel, a single-room-occupancy apartment building near Clark and Division streets, for not paying about $725 in rent. Within the year, his mother had hired him as her staff assistant, paying him $3,162 a month.

Months after getting what was listed as an “unscheduled salary change” — a raise in 2013 from $3,364 a month to $4,001 — he was sued again, this time over more than $5,000 in unpaid rent on an apartment.

He twice left his job working for the alderman, and both times she hired him back. He’s now paid about $15,000 a year as an aldermanic aide.

Though he has listed his address as his parents’ home in the 500 block of West 111th Street as far back as 1988, he was living on the streets then, according to a sheriff’s deputy who was trying to serve him in a child-support lawsuit. “Per gas station, deft lives on the streets,” the officer’s report said. “No contact, made several attempts — he’s a street bum.”

Deneen Towbridge.
Deneen Towbridge.
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• Carrie Austin herself filed for bankruptcy in 2000, a month after settling her divorce from Bobby Jackson, her second husband. Even before being appointed alderman in 1994 by Mayor Richard M. Daley, she had been on the city payroll since at least 1981, when she was an assistant secretary to the alderman.

Her debts were mostly for credit cards, though she also listed a $107,000 mortgage and $21,000 for payments owed on vehicles.

In 2004, she was named in a lawsuit over a car that she cosigned a loan for with Lemuel Austin IV — about $21,000 to finance a 1996 Lincoln Mark VIII luxury coupe that he failed to pay for. By the time the car was sold at auction for $6,700, he was making more than $60,000 a year as a city sewer laborer. Her wages were garnished to settle the debt.

At 70, the alderman bought a new house — 2,900 square feet at 122nd Street and South Laflin Street that’s cited in the grand jury subpoena. She’s also still paying a $101,500 mortgage from 2006 on her old house, which relatives list as their home address.

Contributing: Jon Seidel