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You can’t take it with you. So what happened to the $241,565 in dead pol’s war chest?

What particularly piques my interest is that one person who might be in a position to solve the mystery is Ald. Carrie Austin, heir to Frost’s 34th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.

Ald. Carrie Austin, left, in 2015; Ald. Wilson Frost, right, in 1983.
Ald. Carrie Austin, left, in 2015; Ald. Wilson Frost, right, in 1983.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times; Sun-Times archives

When former Ald. Wilson Frost died in May 2018, nearly 20 years after last holding public office, he was still sitting on $241,565 in campaign money.

What happened to the money?

It’s a mystery because, within months of Frost’s death, his campaign committee stopped filing its required disclosure reports with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

What particularly piques my interest is that one person who might be in a position to solve the mystery is Ald. Carrie Austin, heir to Frost’s 34th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.

Austin, who is now under federal investigation, was elected to succeed Frost as 34th Ward committeeman in 2000.

Since then, she’s been listed by Citizens for Frost in election board records as one of four candidates the committee purports to support — along with Frost and two other 34th Ward stalwarts, former state Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims.

In actuality, the campaign hasn’t reported spending a dime on anybody or anything in the intervening two decades. But the listing arguably could give those individuals legal claim to control the funds in Frost’s account following his death.

Jones, who is retired, told me he doesn’t know anything about Frost’s campaign fund.

“First I heard about it,” he said.

Then-Illinois Senate President Emil Jones in 2008.
Then-Illinois Senate President Emil Jones in 2008.

Sims didn’t respond to my calls. But she sent a letter to the State Board of Elections in January saying she’d only recently learned her name was mentioned in the Frost committee’s filings and asking that it be removed.

“I have no knowledge, nor have I any participation with this committee,” Sims told elections officials.

Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims.
Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

That leaves Austin, who unfortunately has not been very communicative since FBI agents raided her ward office in June — even less so since the Sun-Times detailed her family’s troubled financial history, except to complain about that article.

It’s certainly possible Austin doesn’t know anything about Frost’s campaign fund either.

What leads me to think otherwise is that Dianne Turner, the longtime campaign treasurer for Citizens for Frost, is also the treasurer for Austin’s three campaign committees — the records of which recently were subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.

Turner sent a letter to the elections board in April, backdated to Dec. 31, 2018, resigning her position with Citizens for Frost without stating a reason.

“Further, please likewise acknowledge that during my tenure with Citizens for Frost I had no jurisdiction or charge over any bank accounts of monies in connection with the committee’s fiscal responsibilities,” she wrote.

Ald. Carrie Austin.
Ald. Carrie Austin in June.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

That sentence struck me as just a bit odd given the context of the circumstances.

As you might expect, Turner received no such return acknowledgement, seeing as how state elections officials have no way of knowing who controlled the campaign committee’s bank accounts, other than presumably Frost, who was still its chairman when he died at 92. Turner had been campaign treasurer since 2000.

Turner did not respond to my attempts to seek clarification, unless you count the time she called back and then hung up when I answered.

Turner’s last report filed on behalf of Citizens for Frost covered the period ending Sept. 30, 2018 — roughly five months after Frost’s death — and showed the $241,565 balance.

Citizens for Frost has since failed to file its latest three quarterly reports.

Under state law, Frost would have been allowed at any time before his death to withdraw the entire amount in his campaign fund and keep it as income as long as he paid taxes on the amount.

State ethics legislation approved in 1998 allows politicians from that era to take as income an amount equal to their fund balance on June 30, 1998. On that date, Frost had $298,091 in the account.

Wilson Frost in 2010.
Wilson Frost in 2010.
Sun-Times files

But the situation becomes much more complicated after a politician’s death. Joseph Topinka, son of former state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, discovered as much — to his chagrin.

When his mother died unexpectedly in 2014, Topinka laid claim to $341,618 from her campaign fund on behalf of her estate, citing the 1998 exemption. But he was rebuffed by the campaign committee, by then in the hands of his mother’s top political aide, and later by the courts.

Frost’s widow Myra said she has no idea what happened to her husband’s campaign fund, but assures me she did not inherit it.

“I’m sorry. I wish I had it,” Myra Frost said from the couple’s home in Palm Desert, California, where they moved after Frost retired in 1998 from his last office as commissioner of what is now known as the Cook County Board of Review.

Frost, 78, told me her late husband “took care of all the finances.”

She said she could certainly use the money because she only receives a third of her husband’s pension and recently had to replace an air conditioner.

If the money is actually still in the account, maybe somebody could let her know so she could make a claim.

Ald. Wilson Frost in 1983.
Ald. Wilson Frost in 1983.
Sun-Times files.

That somebody won’t be from the State Board of Elections, which is more a bookkeeping than enforcement agency. The board has no power to enforce compliance with its reporting requirements beyond imposing fines on the committee itself. It also has no power to enforce payment of those fines other than to deny a candidate the right to run in the future (not a particularly effective deterrent for a dead man.)

At some point, after a year or so with no activity, the board will just declare Citizens for Frost closed.

In which case, we might never learn what happened to the money.

“We don’t have any authority over or access to a committee’s bank account, so we can’t freeze or seize whatever might still be there,” said board spokesman Matt Dietrich. “Law enforcement agencies can do that, but it’s outside of our jurisdiction.”

Luckily, it’s not outside the feds’ jurisdiction. They might want to ask a few questions. If they haven’t already.