Avalanche of mail hitting Illinois voters, but funding behind partisan ‘newspapers’ not disclosed

The publishers of controversial newspapers with heavy political messaging targeting Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker are able to avoid disclosure requirements covering campaign committees.

SHARE Avalanche of mail hitting Illinois voters, but funding behind partisan ‘newspapers’ not disclosed

Dan Proft is chair of People Who Play by the Rules PAC, which supports Republicans.

Tim Boyle, Sun-Times Media

In the days before the Nov. 8 election, along with routine political pitches, an avalanche of so-called “newspapers” produced by GOP partisans who do not reveal their financial backers is flooding the mailboxes of Illinois voters.

The Illinois Campaign Disclosure Act requires that a political committee put its name on any political communications it is paying for, whether TV spots, texts, mailers, leaflets or print or digital ads. It’s different for a newspaper.

Those waves of newspapers being sent to Illinois voters — with fuzzy lines between journalism and what amounts to political messaging — and attacking Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker with negative stories — have been faulted for spreading misinformation and disinformation about Democrats.

Every article in the latest edition of the Lake County Gazette, delivered on Wednesday, was slanted against Pritzker and had no stories about local events in it.

As the Columbia Journalism Review concluded in an Oct. 6 article, “While the papers claim to comprise honest local reporting — ‘Real data. Real news,’ the slogan reads — they are part of a wider trend of the blurring of journalism and campaigning.”

“This has sparked fears that, ahead of the midterms, readers are consuming divisive messages without realizing the true source. While papers of this kind tend to mimic the look and feel of local reporting, they are in fact funded by pacs or activists with agendas.”

The CJR also notes that the publisher of the papers, Local Government Information Services Inc., was cited by Reuters, the AP, Factcheck.org, for containing untrue content.

This Sun-Times story is intended to shed light on the political network behind these papers inundating Illinois voters — and tell you about the people funding some of these PACS with names that don’t tell you much.

What is clear is that these newspapers are stuffed with political messaging, all aimed at defeating Pritzker. And because this messaging is packaged in “newspapers,” the publishers are able to avoid financial disclosure requirements covering campaign committees.

The Democratic Party of Illinois, on behalf of the Pritzker campaign, launched an enormous Chicago-area direct-mail blitz landing in mailboxes in October, targeting the voters the LGIS papers are targeting in Chicago, suburban Cook County and DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties. Each mailer is headlined with the same message: “Don’t Be Fooled.” The wording is about the same in all the mailers: “Chicago City Wire is not a real newspaper.”

More on those newspapers below and how secret money is funding them:

Proft, Tillman, Uihlein: Key players with related political activities

GOP political operative Dan Proft, conservative activist John Tillman and mega-donor Richard Uihlein — working outside of any political structure and answering only to themselves — have been cemented as the most powerful Republicans in Illinois during the 2022 election cycle.

Their inter-related political activities are bankrolled in full or part by Uihlein, one of the nation’s biggest contributors to conservative candidates and causes — and that includes the latest blasts of direct mail aimed to elect Republicans to the Illinois General Assembly. Uihlein, of Lake Forest, is the co-founder of Uline, an office and business supply company.

Proft is the chair of the People Who Play By the Rules PAC, financed with $24,825,000 so far from Uihlein. The PAC, which supports Republicans, is run independent of any campaign.

Case study: Snapshot in the northwest suburbs

Voters are also getting mail by PACS with names designed to confuse you.

The contest for state representative in the 66th district pits Democratic state Rep. Suzanne Ness, D-Crystal Lake, against Republican Connie Cain, an accountant from Gilberts. 

The Democratic Party of Illinois paid for a piece slamming Cain; the Illinois Republic Party hit Ness in its mailer. Who is behind those ads is no mystery.

But the three independent expenditure PACS — with no official connections to any campaigns — with little-known names but lots of money are taking aim at Ness in mailers.

Ness is hit in pieces produced by a political action committee created Sept. 19 called Common Sense Reforms NFP — with the feel-good name not very informative.

State records show that Common Sense Reforms NFP is led by Tillman, chairman of the Illinois Policy Institute. Through the years, Uihlein, through his family foundation, has donated millions of dollars to the Illinois Policy Institute.

The day after Common Sense Reforms NFP was founded in September, Uihlein gave it $1.5 million, the only donation to date.

The Common Sense Reforms NFP is bankrolling direct-mail blitzes in 19 state House races with heavy spending to defeat Democrats.

The INCS Action Independent Committee also attacked Ness in a mailer. This PAC is connected to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

A major donor to INCS Action is Jim Walton, of Bentonville, Ark., an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune. Walton has long been active in promoting charter schools. Another big contributor is Wheels CEO Jim Frank, whose company is in Des Plaines. According to state records, Walton gave the PAC $700,000 this year. In the last two years, Frank contributed $850,000 to the PAC.

The PAC had $1.9 million on hand as of Sept. 30, according to state records and in the past two weeks went on a $687,000 direct-mail spending spree backing Republicans in 10 state legislative districts. 

Ness was also hit in a piece of direct mail paid for by the People Who Play By the Rules PAC.

Secret money behind the massive anti-Pritzker mailings: Pushback from Pritzker, Democratic Party of Illinois

Newspapers packed with political messaging mailed to voters (left) and mailers from the Democratic Party of Illinois warning voters about them.

Newspapers packed with political messaging mailed to voters, left, and mailers from the Democratic Party of Illinois warning voters, right.

Anthony Vazquez/ Sun-Times,

Voters are being mailed newspapers whose mastheads across the state of Illinois have local names, for example in the Chicago area, the Chicago City Wire; North Cook News; West Cook News; South Cook News; DuPage Policy Journal; Kane County Reporter; Lake County Gazette and Will County Gazette.

The papers are published by Local Government Information Services Inc. The company does not disclose its financial backers.

An Oct. 6 story in the Columbia Journalism Review on the papers noted all that is known is that funding “in part” comes from “advocacy groups.”

NPR reported on Monday that “Proft’s PAC also helps to underwrite the papers, which he conceded on the air recently.”

The roots of these papers go back to 2016, when Proft, through his now-defunct Liberty Principles PAC, published a string of similar “local” papers with high doses of political messaging content. According to state records, Uihlein contributed millions of dollars to the Liberty Principles PAC.

In 2016, the Illinois State Board of Elections admonished Proft for not disclosing that his PAC was paying for the papers. On Aug. 15, 2016, according to state records, Local Government Information Services Inc., was incorporated in Illinois. The president of LGIS is Brian Timpone; the secretary is John Tillman, whose IPI received millions of dollars from Uihlein’s foundation.

Timpone’s been connected to Metric Media LLC, a network of companies, including Local Government Information Services and Pipeline Media, where he is listed as a manager on state records.

Pritzker campaign manager Mike Ollen said that because of the LGIS papers’ “misinformation that they are putting out there,” the campaign has “fought back.

“We have on television ads and mail to correct things independent fact-checkers have called false,” a reference to the “Don’t Be Fooled” mailers.

Proft declined to answer questions about his political operations. He said in a text on Monday, “Here’s my answer: when you or any of the other [employees] of Pritzker’s comm shop take an interest in how and where and on what he’s spent $350M over the past four years on IL politics then I’ll entertain your feeble attempts to do a hatchet piece on me.”

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