THE WATCHDOGS: Campaign donor paid salary of Rep. Bobby Rush’s niece
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U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, has a family member who for years has worked for his church but been paid by a campaign supporter and friend in what could be a violation of congressional ethics rules, a Chicago Sun-Times / Better Government Association investigation has found.
The arrangement involves:
• Rush, the South Side politician who came under scrutiny by congressional ethics investigators last year as the result of Sun-Times / BGA stories that raised questions about his use of campaign money and his handling of a $1 million grant for a nonprofit he operated in Englewood.
• The congressman’s niece, Angelique Chatman.
• And wealthy Chicago businessman Timothy Rand, a longtime Rush friend and campaign contributor who for years has had a lucrative deal with City Hall to operate Midway Airport outposts of Harry Caray’s, Manny’s Deli and other restaurants. Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Rand to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority in June, citing his concessions experience.
As the congressional investigators were digging into Rush’s finances last year, they discovered Chatman had been working nearly full time since 2011 for her uncle’s Beloved Community Christian Church on the South Side as an office manager. Rush, who is a minister, founded and runs the church at 6430 S. Harvard.
Chatman told the investigators from the Office of Congressional Ethics she worked at the church and nowhere else — but Beloved wasn’t paying her salary, according to a transcript of her interview.
Just who was paying her, she refused to say — earning her the label of “non-cooperating witness.”
The investigators also interviewed Rush. When asked who was paying his niece for her work at Beloved, though, the congressman refused to tell them, saying the source of her pay was “her private information,” according to a transcript of his interview.
Rush’s attorney, Scott Thomas, followed up with a letter to the ethics investigators, saying Chatman was being paid by a Chicago-area “food distribution company” that allowed her to spend her work hours assisting the congressman’s church.
Thomas didn’t identify the company. But he described the owner — also unnamed — as a “longtime supporter” of the church and a “personal friend of Rep. Rush.”
Interviews, court documents and other records confirmed that the businessman is Rand, whose Midway Airport Concessionaires operates restaurants at the city-owned Southwest Side airport under contract with City Hall.
In a written statement, Rand confirms that Chatman has been on the payroll of Midway Airport Concessionaires since 2011. Rand spokesman Grayson Mitchell says Chatman was not paid for work at the church and that Chatman’s job at the company entails visiting the airport to monitor employees and handle payroll records.
But the Chicago Department of Aviation, which operates Midway Airport, says it has no record of Chatman ever being given the security badge she would need to allow her access past a security checkpoint to the airport’s concessions area.
A decade ago, the Federal Aviation Administration tightened its definition of “disadvantaged” businesses — a designation meant to help companies owned by minorities or women win government contracts at the nation’s airports, which the FAA regulates. That designation can give those businesses a leg up as the city tries to meet minority-contracting goals set by the federal government.
The FAA decided that for a company to qualify as disadvantaged, its owner’s net worth couldn’t exceed $750,000.
In 2005, a Rand business that co-owned Midway Airport Concessionaires held that designation even though the Sun-Times reported he was worth an estimated $20 million — far above the FAA limit, potentially putting his Midway deal in jeopardy.
But City Hall decided Rand could keep the Midway concessions contract because he had secured it in 2000 under earlier rules.
In his letter last year to the ethics investigators, attorney Thomas said the businessman paying the salary of Rush’s niece had once sought the congressman’s assistance on a “matter of local regulation of minority businesses.”
Asked whether Rush intervened with the city or the FAA — which is funded by Congress — to help Rand’s company keep its Midway concession deal, Rand says in a written statement he can’t “recall having ever called upon the congressman’s office for assistance in any matters concerning my company.”
Rand also says the “hiring of Ms. Chatman did not come at the congressman’s personal request or influence.”
Thomas declined to answer questions. But in a written statement, he lauds Rush as “a caring advocate for his community” who “seeks to comply at all times with applicable ethics rules.”
Chatman won’t comment.
It’s not clear whether she still works for Rush’s church. A recent visit to his church found its doors locked, its windows broken and a sign indicating services are now held at another building.
Chatman’s yearly salary wasn’t noted in the transcript of her interview with the congressional investigators.
Under House ethics rules, its members generally are barred from accepting what’s determined to be a favor or gift.
There are exceptions involving gifts to a congressman’s personal charity. But a congressman is required to get written permission from the House Ethics Committee before he can solicit gifts for a charity he controls. And, even then, lawmakers aren’t supposed to personally benefit.
There’s no evidence Rush obtained such permission.
Rush’s church has faced lawsuits — including one that’s still pending in court — over unpaid mortgage and electric bill payments, and those suits have personally named him as a defendant.
Rush declined requests for an interview, saying: “This is nothing more than a widespread scandalous, scurrilous witch hunt. I will not participate in it in any form whatsoever. I have always lived up to the best of my abilities to the high standards of the ethics committee. That’s it.”
Told of the arrangement involving Rush’s niece’s pay, former U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican who chaired the House Ethics Committee in the early 2000s, says: “It raises enough questions that it needs to be looked into. You have to be very, very careful about favors you accept.”
Rand’s business reported sales of more than $30 million during the city’s 2014 budget year, according to a city aviation department spokesman.
The city gets a percentage of sales from Rand’s Midway concessions. Its cut for 2014 totaled $4.5 million from more than a dozen food and drink businesses operated by Rand, according to City Hall.
City officials say it doesn’t appear the arrangement between Chatman and Rand’s company violated either its lease or city rules.
Rand’s Midway contract expired at the end of 2014. But he has held onto the concessions business there since then on a month-to-month basis. So have other airport concessionaires after their leases expired while city officials decide how to proceed in the wake of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s failed plan to privatize the airport.
Since the late 1990s, Rand and Midway Airport Concessionaires have given more than $760,000 to state and local politicians, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records. Rand also has given more than $20,000 to federal political campaigns, records show — including a total of $3,000 given to Rush.
Earlier this year, Rand’s daughter — who has worked for the airport concessions operator — gave $2,500 to Emanuel’s re-election campaign.
The mayor has said he won’t accept contributions from city contractors, though he has continued to take them from employees of those businesses.
Rush came under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics as a result of Sun-Times/BGA stories in 2013 about his finances — including his campaign’s acceptance of free office space.
The investigative agency found Rush might have violated House rules and referred the case to the House Ethics Committee for follow-up and possible sanctions. No punishment has been made public since then.
Chuck Neubauer, Sandy Bergo and Patrick Rehkamp are investigators for the Better Government Association.