Businessman lands big deal with CTA, then helps Lightfoot’s reelection effort

Real estate magnate Elzie Higginbottom exploits loophole in city’s ethics rules to donate $50,000 to “independent committee” targeting mayoral challenger.

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A company tied to real estate magnate Elzie Higginbottom, seen here at a 2021 event, gave a $50,000 political contribution to a fund supporting incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection.

Real estate magnate Elzie Higginbottom’s company, East Lake Management, could be paid more than $23.5 million to secure properties along the route of the CTA’s Red Line extension to 130th Street.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Less than a month ago, the Chicago Transit Authority — whose leaders are appointed by the mayor — announced a lucrative new contract with a company founded by prominent real estate magnate Elzie Higginbottom.

Just a few weeks later, another company tied to Higginbottom gave a $50,000 contribution to a new political fund created by a close ally of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

And on Wednesday, that so-called “independent expenditure” committee finally sprung into action, shelling out more than $70,000 to attack Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, one of Lightfoot’s main challengers in the Feb. 28 election.

A chain of events like this was supposed to have become a thing of the city’s notoriously corrupt, pay-to-play past more than a decade ago. Lightfoot and her immediate predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, vowed to follow ethics rules ostensibly designed to prevent incumbents from getting reelection help from companies that are gorging at City Hall’s massive trough of taxpayer-funded contracts. 

But both Emanuel and Lightfoot have benefited from a gaping loophole in the rules, which were intended to dispel the perception that mayors used their power to try to extend their stays on the fifth floor of City Hall. 

The 77 Committee is the name of the fledgling effort by Lightfoot allies to bolster the embattled first-term mayor in the Feb. 28 election — often in ways she may not legally be able to do herself.

The committee was created in October by Sean Harden, a developer and supporter of Lightfoot. The committee’s executive director, Dave Mellet, was a senior adviser on Lightfoot’s 2019 campaign but said his group in this election cycle did “not communicate or coordinate with any of the campaigns for mayor” and was solely responsible for how it’s raising and spending money.

In a statement Friday, the Lightfoot campaign said she “is focused on her own campaign apparatus and has no control over any outside groups or organizations. Further, she and her team are legally prohibited from communicating directly with the entity in question on any strategic issue. If people want to join in any other efforts to support her agenda of making Chicago safer, fairer and more equitable for all — they are free to do so.”

But Lightfoot could disavow the group and publicly call on potential contributors not to give money to it, said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois.

“It’s not illegal, but it should be,” Kaplan said. “It’s unfortunate, because obviously candidates know who’s donating to these independent expenditure committees.”

As a result, she said, “It can look like there’s a quid pro quo” when companies who do business with the city are funding the committee.

The money that’s gone to the pro-Lightfoot 77 Committee has been put to use a few weeks before the election, for an effort to oppose Johnson. 

The ads against Johnson cost the committee $71,332.50, and that money was paid to Beacon Media LLC of Washington, D.C. Records show Beacon Media played an important role in Lightfoot’s victorious run for mayor in 2019.

The company took credit for Lightfoot’s “Bring in the light” campaign slogan and for TV spots touting her as the reform candidate.

The 77 Committee has reported collecting a total of $210,000 — much of that money from contributors who do business with the city and could otherwise be prohibited from giving directly to Lightfoot’s reelection campaign.

The Chicago Tribune reported last year that the first two contributions to the committee, for a total of $100,000, came from donors with business ties to the city of Chicago.

The 77 Committee has collected another $110,000 since the start of the year, with the largest of the recent contributions coming from the company with ties to Higginbottom. 

The contract approved on Jan. 13 allowed for the business, East Lake Management Inc., to cash in on the 5.6-mile extension of the CTA’s Red Line, where the agency plans to add four new stations between 95th and 130th Streets. East Lake Management could be paid more than $23.5 million to secure properties along the route of the extension, records show.

Less than three weeks later, on Jan. 31, another company at the same address as East Lake Management, a business called ELH Partners LLC, made the $50,000 contribution to the 77 Committee.

Higginbottom is a former Illinois Gaming Board chairman who has been a major city contractor for decades. 

He did not respond to a message seeking comment Friday.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. 

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