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Ethics Board Reduces Campaign Finance Fine Levied Against Ald. Austin From $145K to $5K | Chicago News

A file photo shows 34th Ward Ald. Carrie Austin. (WTTW News)

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward) will have to pay just $ 5,000 to settle the charge that she accepted $ 48,500 in excessive campaign contributions from a company doing business with the city in violation of city law, the Chicago Board of Ethics unanimously ruled Monday .

Austin will also have to return the inappropriate campaign contribution to Benchmark Construction Co., according to the board’s ruling.

In January, the Ethics Board voted unanimously to pay Austin a $ 145,500 fine for accepting the excessive contributions. It was the first time the administration imposed the maximum fine allowed for violations of the city’s campaign finance law: three times the amount of inappropriate campaign contributions.

Austin, the second longest-serving councilor on city council, was not immediately available for comment from WTTW News Monday night.

The inappropriate contribution was made by the Bartlett-based Benchmark Construction Co. Inc. The Ethics Board fined the company $ 5,000.

The board demanded several times that Austin refund the unauthorized contribution before taking action in January. The company also requested a refund of its contribution, according to data from the Ethics Board. Benchmark representatives were not available on Monday evening.

Steve Berlin, the executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, said the board has decided to cut Austin’s fine by more than 96% “after considering the stock of the situation.”

The fine of the councilor is now “equal [to] the amount [the board] levied on the company that made the contribution that broke the law in the first place, ”said Berlin.

The discussion of the matter by the Board took place in closed session, as permitted by its rules.

Companies and people doing business with the city are limited to contributing $ 1,600 to each candidate per year, according to the city’s campaign finance ordinance.

The law, amended by the city council in 2012, holds both the person or firm providing the contribution and the elected official who accepted the contribution responsible for the violation. In addition, violations of the law can result in fines of between $ 1,000 and $ 5,000, or three times the amount of the outrageous contribution – whichever is the greater.

Benchmark has won 80 contracts with the city’s Water Management and Aviation Departments dating back to 1993, according to data maintained by the city’s Department of Procurement Services.

That includes four contracts worth more than $ 93.5 million each to rebuild the city’s outdated water supply system in four parts of the city.

Since 2000, the company has made approximately $ 430,000 in contributions to candidates for office in Illinois, including nearly two dozen current and former councilors, as well as several mayor and city treasurer candidates, according to data filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Inappropriate contributions were made to the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Org. Commission, which raised money for Austin’s campaigns for the Democratic Ward Commissioner, a position she held from 1995 to 2019.

The excessive contributions were made in November 2017 and August 2018, the data shows.

Austin failed to collect enough valid signatures to qualify for the 2019 vote and was replaced by Preston Brown Jr. as a commissioner. Austin has served as an alderman since 1994.

In June 2019, the FBI raided her neighborhood office and took away boxes and files. Austin has not been charged with any crime and she has denied wrongdoing. The investigation focuses on the construction and sale of a West Pullman home in Austin by a developer in her neighborhood, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In August 2019, WBEZ reported that federal prosecutors had subpoenaed reports related to all three campaign committees controlled by Austin: 34th Ward Regular Democratic Org., Citizens for Carrie M. Austin-Alderman 34th Ward, and Friends of Carrie Austin 34th Ward Committeeman. That subpoena asked for the documents related to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The 34th Ward Regular Democratic Org., Which accepted and did not return the inappropriate contributions, had about $ 8,300 available in cash, according to its most recent filing with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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