They were once close friends and ideological soul mates, but Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday said he wouldn’t give John Tillman or his Illinois Policy Institute “another nickel” — after what he learned from a joint Chicago Sun-Times and ProPublica investigation into the finances of the conservative think tank.
The report into the nonprofit that Rauner once generously helped fund showed that Tillman and his associates moved millions of dollars around five interconnected nonprofits they run, steering money to for-profit ventures in which they have a stake.
“I’m very troubled, very troubled by what I’ve learned, and I certainly would not give them any more money,” the governor said.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is reviewing the revelations uncovered in the story.
“We’re reviewing the information, and we’ll determine if we need to take next steps,” attorney general’s office spokeswoman Maura Possley said.
And state Sen. Chris Nybo, R-Elmhurst, in an email to Senate Republican colleagues, is exploring whether to draft a Joint House- Senate Resolution asking for investigations by the FBI, the IRS or the Attorney General’s office.
“I am very troubled by the reports about John Tillman’s non-profits that are starting to emerge,” Nybo wrote.
The public divide between Rauner and Tillman — which spawned a Republican primary challenger in state Rep. Jeanne Ives — comes months after the governor hired members of the conservative think tank for key posts in his administration. Most lasted just weeks before being ousted.
After the governor signed a bill expanding taxpayer funding of abortion last year, Tillman blasted him on Facebook, calling him “Benedict Rauner.”
On Thursday, the governor returned the favor.
“I can tell you I would absolutely not give them another nickel. I can say that,” Rauner told reporters in Chicago when asked if he regrets contributing to the think tank and would ever do so again. “I’ve been a longtime funder of efforts to bring free market principles to Illinois and to America. They used to be an advocate there. But I’m very troubled, very troubled by what I’ve learned, and I certainly would not give them any more money.”
The governor, too, was asked about his relationship with Lake Forest business magnate Richard Uihlein, another former ally who bucked the governor by contributing $2.5 million to Ives’ primary campaign.
“I can’t say there is one,” Rauner said of his relationship with Uihlein.
A Uihlein spokesman last year said the ultra-conservative donor was still on board with Rauner, but Uihlein — who also donated to some of the groups Tillman controls — began contributing to the Ives campaign in January. His financial boost helped the Wheaton conservative run statewide television ads.
The Sun-Times and ProPublica investigation — which ran online Thursday but will also be published in editions of the Sunday Sun-Times— found that while the Illinois Policy Institute attacked political insiders for profiting off the system, tax filings and audits showed Tillman was able to increase his own bottom line, parlaying a small-government message into growing paychecks for himself and other top staff members
Tillman, in written answers to questions, said the transactions highlighted in the story were appropriate and transparent.
The Rauner Family Foundation was among a handful of conservative, wealthy benefactors that was key to the growth of the Illinois Policy Institute and its partner organizations — with the Rauner foundation donating $625,000 between 2009 and 2013. And tenets from the think tank were also included in Rauner’s initial 44-point “Turnaround Agenda.”
The governor was pressed further about what he found troubling within the Sun-Times-ProPublica report.
“It sounds like there’s been improper structure there and improper benefits,” he said.
Tillman took to Twitter to defend himself against Rauner’s broadside: “He should be more concerned with his 26% approval rating. Illinoisans are clearly troubled by what they’ve seen from his failed administration.”
And regarding the governor’s claim he will no longer donate to the organization, Tillman went for the jugular in attacking Illinois first lady Diana Rauner.
“Assuming that’s because Diana won’t allow him to donate to us, Tillman tweeted. “Regardless, we wouldn’t accept his donation. Our members believe in balanced budgets, responsible gov’t and reducing taxes on Illinois’ middle class — all of which @GovRauner has failed to achieve since taking office.”
Tina Sfondeles is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Mick Dumke is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois.