Some elected public servants probably spend more time plotting their next career move than governing.
Others are fine where they’re at, knowing that a run for higher office can mean they’ll face getting “scrootened,” as former Mayor Richard M. Daley once put it.
During five years in his current role as mayor of south suburban Crestwood, Lou Presta has largely avoided the scrutiny of opposition researchers and pesky investigative reporters, who often pry into the lives of higher-profile politicians.
But Presta, 67, now is running for Cook County commissioner in next month’s election. He’s one of three Democratic candidates for the County Board seat being vacated by Ed Moody, a longtime campaign operative for Illinois House Speaker and state party boss Michael Madigan.
Even a perfunctory look into Presta’s track record turns up some issues that could complicate his plans for upward mobility.
The Internal Revenue Service and the state of Illinois Department of Revenue have filed liens against Presta for tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes, according to county records.
In 2015, the IRS sought $22,663 in back taxes that the feds say Presta owed to Uncle Sam. And the state filed a lien against him in December 2016 for another $2,516 in unpaid taxes, the records show.
This isn’t the first time Presta had failed to promptly pay his fair share to the tax collectors.
Between 1998 and 2007, the IRS filed three liens against him for a total of nearly $80,000.
Presta filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and 2007, according to federal court records. Documents from his 2007 bankruptcy case show his main creditor was the IRS, owed $52,000 at the time.
Despite reporting income of $160,000 a year from his newspaper distribution business in 2004 and 2005, Presta told the bankruptcy court he had just $50 cash, $38 in a checking account and clothes worth $200.
On Friday, Presta acknowledged he hadn’t yet paid back the money that the feds and the state said he owed.
But he said he worked out an installment plan with the IRS about a year ago.
“I’m on monthly payments,” he said.
Presta said his personal financial woes came about because he “goofed up” and lost money in “an investment deal with property developers” about 20 years ago.
Presta is running for the County Board — at a time when the county’s own financial issues are severe — because, he said, “I want to see if I can be a big help, especially with property taxes.”
One of his two primary opponents, Patricia Joan Murphy of Crestwood, said Presta should straighten out his own financial house instead of running for commissioner.
“When he doesn’t pay his own fair share, others are left to pay the difference,” said Murphy, whose mother held the County Board seat until she died in 2016.
Murphy said “someone like that shouldn’t be in charge of budgets” financed by taxpayers.
“One time, I get it, anything can happen,” she said. “But it’s a pattern, over and over again.”
The other candidate for commissioner, healthcare industry consultant Donna Miller of Lynwood, declined to comment on Presta’s tax woes.
The Chicago Sun-Times recently reported that two commissioners, Democrat Bridget Gainer and Republican Sean Morrison, did not pay property taxes on their homes on time. They rushed to the county treasurer’s office to settle up almost as soon as this columnist contacted them.
Voters ultimately will decide whether they can trust Presta to represent them in debates over taxation, despite all his difficulties paying his own tax bills.