For 13 years, the Internal Revenue Service hounded a politically connected Bridgeport charity to pay back taxes, slapping it with a series of liens totaling $109,000, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
At the same time, the charity, Benton House, let its buildings fall into disrepair, resulting in repeated citations from City Hall inspectors for building code violations.
It got so bad that Benton House’s then-board president, Chicago police Officer Anthony Skokal, and executive director Mark Lennon borrowed $120,000 from another Bridgeport institution, Washington Federal Bank for Savings, to pay the back taxes and make repairs, personally guaranteeing to repay the money.
Three years ago, the bank foreclosed, seeking repayment of the loan. That prompted an attorney for Benton House to go to court, seeking permission from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who regulates charities, to turn Benton House over to the control of the Murrays, a clout-heavy Bridgeport family.
Mary Murray and her family already were running another Bridgeport charity, the MMM Educational Scholarship Fund. She founded the fund with her son James T. Weiss, who has multimillion-dollar contracts to park cars on parking lots owned by the Chicago Public Schools near Wrigley Field and other sports venues.
Now, the Murrays run both charities, relying on powerful political backers to support them including Cook County Commissioner John Daley and his nephew Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), Andrew Madigan, son of Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, and state Rep. Dan Burke, D-Chicago, brother of Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th).
Benton House, a former settlement house that now operates an emergency food pantry on South Gratten, has been selling off property and repaying the IRS liens but has yet to make all of the repairs it’s been cited for by city inspectors.
Over the past few months, the IRS removed four liens totaling $40,533 that it had filed against Benton House, according to documents filed with the Cook County recorder of deeds that show the IRS filed 11 liens altogether.
The attorney for the two charities, Richard Velazquez, says that recently “all IRS liens have been satisfied and released,” though there’s no IRS documentation filed with the county to show that the seven other liens totaling $68,594 have been repaid.
MORE FROM THE WATCHDOGS
Under the Murrays, Benton House borrowed money from what’s identified only as a “third party” and repaid Washington Federal, which federal regulators shut down last December as insolvent.
Benton House’s most recent annual filing, last October, shows it owed $65,000 to that third party.
But Velazquez says the debt has since been paid down to $5,000. He declined to identify the lender.
The mission of the Murrays’ scholarship fund, named for her late mother, is “to provide educational scholarships to our young students to pursue their educational goals,” according to a flyer promoting a fund-raising golf outing last month co-chaired by Daley and Thompson.
In its tax filings, the charity hasn’t reported giving any scholarships since it was started in 2013. But Velazquez says the fund has handed out 16 scholarships toward high school and college costs.
The charity won’t say who got them or how much each was for, though Murray says they were “never more than $1,500” each.
One year, the fund didn’t give out any scholarships, according to Velazquez, a lawyer with the firm Daley & Georges, which was founded by the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and now is headed by his son Michael Daley.
“No scholarship applications were received for the 2015-2016 school year so no scholarships were awarded for that year,” Velazquez says by email. “However, five hundred hat and glove sets were distributed to pre-K through 2nd grade students by the organization in 2015. In 2017, 1,000 hat and glove sets were distributed.”
The fund’s website and Facebook page offer no information about how to apply.
Altogether, each charity brings in less than $50,000 a year, according to the most recent reports Murray filed on them with the attorney general’s office.
The scholarship fund’s most recent filing, for 2017, shows it took in $32,126 and spent $35,616 and had assets of $25,539.
The scholarship fund foots the bill for the golf outing and splits proceeds with Benton House, according to Velazquez.
“As Benton House has limited resources, MMM underwrites the event and makes contributions towards Benton House’s educational programs,” Velazquez says.
In its latest annual report to the attorney general and the IRS, filed last October, Benton House reported revenues of $48,142 and expenditures of $56,860 and ended that 12-month reporting period with assets of $360,000.
Benton House has sold off property in the 3000 block of South Gratten including a lot that a developer bought for $100,000 in May, a month after the Chicago City Council, including Thompson, rezoned the property to allow construction of a home.
Thompson says he got involved because he was interested in helping Benton House, which Murray says has hosted programs for senior citizens and neighborhood kids for generations, sometimes funded by state and city grants.
The Bridgeport alderman says he didn’t know about the scholarship fund.
Thompson isn’t on Benton House’s board. But his predecessor, former Ald. James Balcer, was on the board at the time the IRS began going after the charity for back taxes.
Murray says the golf outing initially benefited the scholarship fund and “just started” partnering with the other charity to expand its reach, saying, “Other big nonprofits are doing that.”
Neither she nor Velazquez will say how much money the golf outing brings in or how it’s split between the two groups.
Murray is the secretary-treasurer of both charities.
In addition to Murray, the Benton House board includes her brother Edward Murray and her daughter-in-law Toni Berrios, the former state representative, who is president.
Berrios, the daughter of Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, is married to Weiss, Murray’s son, who co-owns Blk & Wht Valet Parking LLC. That company has deals to pay CPS a total of more than $2 million to park cars on school parking lots during Cubs games and other events.
In addition to Murray, the scholarship fund’s board includes her daughter Patricia Scumaci, Toni Berrios, Weiss and his business partner in Blk & Wht, Iman Bambooyani.