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Ald. Carrie Austin exceeded committee budget by 65 percent

An audit shows Austin spent $352,629 more than the Budget Committee was allowed. That included Austin placing Chester Wilson, her 34th Ward chief of staff, on the committee payroll at an annual salary of $118,440.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) at the June 12, 2019 Chicago City Council meeting.
Former Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) talks to a colleague at the June 12 City Council meeting. Austin has not been seen in public since the June 19 raid on her ward office.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) last year spent 65% more than the annual amount allotted to the City Council’s Budget Committee she chaired in the run-up to a federal raid on her ward office.

An annual audit known as the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report shows the Budget Committee’s annual budget was $543,968 and that Austin blew past it — by $352,629. The audit was conducted by the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche LLP.

Sources attributed at least some of that overspending to Austin’s decision to place Chester Wilson, her 34th Ward chief of staff, on the Budget Committee payroll at an annual salary of $118,440.

Wilson’s name is among those mentioned in an attachment to a subpoena delivered to the city and other agencies of local government in advance of the June 19 raid on Austin’s ward office.

Austin could not reached for comment.

The only other committee to record significant overspending was the Zoning Committee, chaired by disgraced former Ald. Danny Solis (25th).

Solis exceeded his $400,574 annual budget by $48,300 — about 12%. The overspending occurred during the two years Solis wore a wire to help federal investigators build their corruption case against Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th). That was after Solis was confronted with evidence of his own alleged wrongdoing.

The Burke-chaired Finance Committee had an annual budget of $2.26 million and spent $2.05 million, the audit states.

Austin supported Toni Preckwinkle over Lori Lightfoot in the April 2 mayoral runoff.

In a desperate attempt to remain as budget chairman, she promised to be just as loyal to Lightfoot as she had been to Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley. She also condemned the hateful remarks U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush made about Lightfoot during a March 22 Preckwinkle rally.

It wasn’t enough.

When Lightfoot announced her leadership lineup, Austin was out as budget chairman but was offered a consolation chair: a new Committee on Contract Oversight and Equity. The move was seen as necessary to win the 26 votes Lightfoot needed to approve her team.

At first, Austin called it a “pansy” committee and said she wasn’t certain she would take it. Ultimately, Austin acquiesced, apparently concluding something was better than nothing.

Newly appointed Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dowell (3rd) said Monday she could not explain Austin’s overspending or the city’s apparent decision to allow her to exceed her annual budget by so much.

Dowell would say only that her annual committee budget has been reduced to $280,000 — plus court reporting and supplies — and she intends to live within those parameters.

“You have to ask Carrie these questions. I inherited her committee. I didn’t inherit her situation. I didn’t inherit any of her people,” Dowell said.

“I’m starting with a fresh slate. I’m not carrying forward any of the questions related to her committee. I’m gonna be responsible for everything going forward. Come back to me on anything. I’m an open book.”

Kristen Cabanban, a spokesperson for the city’s Office of Budget and Management, said the City Council approves committee budgets and “may use unassigned fund balance” to cover “excess expenditures,” as long as “the total appropriation for the fund is not exceeded.”

“Going forward, the City’s Budget Office will be looking into all committee appropriations to ensure that committees have the appropriate resources assigned to perform their work and to ensure good use of available resources,” Cabanban wrote in an email.

Austin remains a member of Lightfoot’s leadership team. The mayor has demanded Burke’s resignation but has yet to demand the same from Austin.

Days after the federal raid on her ward office, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Austin, the City Council’s second-longest serving alderman, got a $231,000 federal loan for her October 2018 purchase of a home in a development that’s in line for millions in city subsidies.

That Federal Housing Administration mortgage — usually designed to help low- to moderate-income homebuyers — covered almost the entire $236,000 cost for the single-family home in the 12200 block of South Laflin Street.

The home is part of the $25 million Renaissance Estates, a JTA Development Inc. project earmarked for $5.5 million in tax increment financing money.

Austin’s home is a focus of federal investigators’ interest, according to the grand jury subpoena reviewed by the Sun-Times. Among other items, the subpoena asks for records related to the construction, purchase and financing of the home. Austin purchased the home as the feds were investigating her as part of wide-ranging probes of Chicago aldermen, sources said.

Today, eight months after the purchase, the Cook County assessor’s office estimates Austin’s home is worth at least $500,000.

Contributing: Tim Novak and Lauren FitzPatrick