There’s probably never a good time for a news story about how a source claims you, your wife and your brother-in-law are under federal investigation. But when that report is aired just days before what is likely the most consequential five weeks of your entire governorship, that’s definitely not an opportune moment.
Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ reported on April 24 that a single law enforcement source claimed Gov. J.B. Pritzker, his wife MK and his brother-in-law Thomas Muenster “are under federal criminal investigation.”
According to the story, the federal probe started last October and appears to be focused on the now-infamous toilet scandal. The Cook County Independent Inspector General claimed after an investigation that the removal of toilets from an unoccupied mansion next door to the governor’s principal Chicago residence, in an apparent attempt to lower its property tax bill, was a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers of over $300,000. Pritzker himself did not appear to be personally implicated.
Interestingly enough, WBEZ also pointedly mentioned that Mrs. Pritzker’s personal assistant Christine Lovely has retained former federal prosecutor Reid Schar as her attorney, but the article does not claim that she is under investigation. Lovely and Muenster each signed affidavits claiming the property in question had been uninhabitable and vacant since 2012. The governor’s office confirmed to me that Lovely is still Mrs. Pritzker’s assistant.
“There are no signs that criminal charges are imminent,” the WBEZ article claimed.
Indeed, the former Cook County assessor, who reduced the Pritzkers’ property tax bill, and the reformer who defeated him last year both told the Chicago Tribune that they were unaware of any federal investigation, which seems a bit odd.
And I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the county inspector general last week, asking for copies of any federal subpoenas relating to the issue and was told, six months after the federal investigation supposedly started, they had no such documents.
As we all have seen over the years, federal investigations can take lots of time and sometimes only result in the reputational damage of being investigated. The feds have high conviction rates, but that’s partly because they carefully choose whom to indict.
For instance, the Sun-Times reported last week that testimony in the criminal trial of a former employee of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown revealed the feds started investigating Brown in 2014. Five years later, she’s still under a cloud with no end in sight.
A federal investigation of Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino was first reported in 2016, when grand jury subpoenas of his former legislative campaign workers were revealed. Three years hence, no public statements have been issued about where the investigation stands.
Setting aside the potential (if any) legal consequences, this story could obviously damage the governor’s ambitious spring legislative agenda. Republicans will have a new rallying cry to oppose his plans. Pritzker is counting on bipartisan agreements on a capital bill and on legalization of both recreational cannabis and sports betting.
The governor also needs every single Democrat he can get on his graduated income tax proposal, but some Democrats could become even more skittish than they already are about standing with him on votes that could hurt their reelection chances.
The piling-on began almost immediately. Ideas Illinois, the dark money group formed to oppose Pritzker’s graduated income tax plan, released a statement the morning the story was broadcast that read in part: “Governor Pritzker should immediately abandon his push for this massive Jobs Tax on middle class families because he can’t expect people to pay more when he is reportedly under criminal investigation for gaming the system to pay less.”
But, really, it’s just too early to tell what will happen to his overall agenda. Legislative leaders are usually not quick to make up their minds about how to deal with these sorts of things. It could all depend on how Pritzker reacts in the coming days. So far, they’re issuing the standard statement about how they haven’t been contacted about any investigation, but potential targets are only rarely whistled in by the G. Pritzker repeated his line from the campaign that all rules were followed.
Even so, all this has to be making the governor’s people sick to the very pits of their stomachs right now. Everything, and I do mean everything, is riding on what happens in the General Assembly during May. Significant failure would devastate not only Pritzker’s budget, but the other big things Pritzker wants to accomplish as governor.
Nothing like a little drama to spice things up, I suppose.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.