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Lightfoot condemns Carrie Austin’s overspending but won’t strip her of committee chair

How did the alderman’s Budget Committee overspend by $352,629 last year? “You’re gonna have to ask Rahm Emanuel that question,” the mayor said. “I’m telling you it’s never happening again on my watch.”

Deposed Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) talks to a colleague at the June City Council meeting.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday condemned the loosey-goosey accounting that allowed former Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) to exceed her annual budget by $352,629 and said it won’t be tolerated on her watch.

“We have put in specific controls to make sure that people live within their means. It’s obviously unacceptable that somebody overruns their budget by that kind of amount. It’s almost double what the budget was in the first place,” the mayor said.

Austin’s committee budget last year was $543,968; she spent $896,597, or about 65% too much, according to the annual city audit.

Lightfoot was asked how Austin was allowed to get away with that in the run-up to a federal raid on her Far South Side ward office. Did somebody cover for the alderman who was her predecessor’s staunchest African-American supporter in the City Council?

“You’re gonna have to ask Rahm Emanuel that question. It’s unacceptable that that happened. And I’m telling you it’s never happening again on my watch. Period,” she said.

The mayor then proudly referred to her decision to oust Austin as Budget Committee chairman and replace her with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

Austin was dumped despite ranking second in seniority to Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who was forced to relinquish the Finance Committee chair after being charged with attempted extortion.

“You notice that she’s not the Budget Committee chair anymore, right?” Lightfoot said.

If Austin was so irresponsible in her handling of city tax dollars, why is she being allowed to keep what amounts to a consolation prize: chairmanship of the newly-created Committee on Contract Oversight and Equity?

Why isn’t the mayor demanding her resignation, just as she did when Burke was charged in a 14-count indictment using a racketeering law normally reserved for mobsters?

“We don’t know what the circumstances are — and certainly the reasons why — the federal authorities executed a search warrant on her, now a couple weeks back. We’ll keep monitoring the story closely. And if…charges are brought, then we’ll respond accordingly at that time,” she said.

“Right now, all we know is that there is an investigation. I’m not gonna presume where that’s gonna lead because I’ve unfortunately seen many instances where there’s a big show of display. There’s been search warrants issued. And then, nothing comes of it. I have no idea what the circumstances are, what will happen next. But, we’ll monitor it and we’ll respond accordingly.”

The mayor didn’t mention that she needed to appease Austin to win the 26 votes she needed to install a new team of City Council leaders.

Sources have attributed at least some of Austin’s overspending to her placing Chester Wilson, her chief of staff in the 34th Ward, 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. The overspending occurred during the two years Solis wore a wire to help federal investigators build a corruption case against Burke. That was after Solis was confronted with evidence of his own alleged wrongdoing.