Ald. Carrie Austin’s 34th Ward campaign committee slapped with $145,500 fine

Records show Benchmark Constructions made three contributions, totaling $55,000, from November 2017 to November 2018.

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Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) at the June 12, 2019 Chicago City Council meeting.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) chats with another alderman during a Chicago City Council meeting in June 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Chicago City Council’s second-most-senior member has been slapped with a $145,500 fine for accepting political contributions from a clout-heavy city contractor that exceeded the legal limit by $48,500.

The Chicago Board of Ethics assessed the unprecedented fine against the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Committee run by Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), ousted chair of the council’s Budget Committee.

Benchmark Construction, the contractor that made the excessive contributions, was fined $5,000. The firm did not respond to a request for comment.

The $145,500 fine against Austin represents triple damages —s three times the excessive amount Benchmark contributed to the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Committee that Austin used to raise money for her campaigns for ward committeeperson.

Campaign-finance reports show the committee received a $50,000 contribution from Benchmark in November 2018 and a pair of $2,500 contributions from the company in November 2017 and August 2018.

Those contributions are noted in a campaign report she amended on Jan. 16, 2020, months after federal investigators raided the alderman’s ward office.

Federal agents remove boxes of material from the ward office of Ald. Carrie Austin on June 19, 2019.

Federal agents remove boxes of material from the office of Ald. Carrie Austin in June 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Board of Ethics voted unanimously to assess triple damages only after the board and Benchmark attempted to resolve the issue by having the contributor receive a refund of the excessive amount contributed, $48,500.

That never happened. Neither did Austin or Benchmark appear before the board to refute the violation. Austin served as ward boss for 24 years — until 2019, when she failed to round up enough petition signatures to get on the ballot. She could not be reached for comment.

“At its December meeting, the board directed that the contributor and committee must either appear before the board at its January meeting and explain why a refund of the excess amount contributed has not been effected or need to be effected,” the Ethics Board report states.

“Because this did not occur, but the contributor did make another attempt to effect a refund, the board at its January, 2021 meeting voted unanimously to determine that the contributor and committee each violated the political contribution limits,” the Ethics Board report states.

It assessed a fine of $145,500 against the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Committee and a $5,000 fine against the contributor, Benchmark Construction.

Since 2010, Benchmark has been awarded an avalanche of city contracts worth up to $1.3 billion for infrastructure work, most of it to repair and replace sewers and water mains. Roughly $217 million of those contracts have come since October 2020 alone.

The campaign contribution limit for companies and individuals doing business with the city is $1,600 per year, per candidate.

In 2004, the Sun-Times reported Benchmark got more than $25 million in city contracts earmarked for minorities, even though then-company president Michael Smith, who is African American, had acknowledged in a court deposition that a white partner oversaw operations.

In the same document, Smith appeared confused about the meaning of the term “below-grade,” though the company does underground construction.

At the time, Smith was listed as president of Benchmark. But then-Mayor Richard M. Daley accepted a campaign contribution from Benchmark and listed the company’s president as Michael Vondra, a construction and asphalt magnate who is white.

Pressed to explain the discrepancy between the city’s certification records and his own campaign finance report, Daley said, “I don’t know. He submitted $1,500 and . . . they put their name down. That’s all we do. We just take it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I wouldn’t know that. I have no idea.”

Daley said at the time he did not believe Benchmark was an example of minority business fraud.

“He’s African-American. He’s black. He went to the interview with the Sun-Times. He talked about it. He has people working for him. He’s black and he owns the company,” he said.

Smith is no longer president of Bartlett-based Benchmark. He was replaced in 2008 by a longtime company employee who is white. 

Austin’s finances have been in the spotlight since June 2019 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.”

Two months later, Austin called the Sun-Times to complain about a weekend story by the Watchdogs detailing the 14 times that Austin and her six children and stepchildren have declared bankruptcy, often while holding government jobs. She tearfully portrayed herself on that day as a victim of political and media “persecution” and questioned why she and her family were being dragged “through the mud.”

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