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Never a dull moment

Monday, Apr 29, 2019

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

There’s probably never a good time for a news story about how a source claims you, your wife and your brother-in-law are under federal investigation. But when that report is aired just days before what is likely the most consequential five weeks of your entire governorship, that’s definitely not an opportune moment.

Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ reported on April 24 that a single law enforcement source claimed Gov. J.B. Pritzker, his wife MK and his brother-in-law Thomas Muenster “are under federal criminal investigation.”

According to the story, the federal probe started last October and appears to be focused on the now-infamous toilet scandal. The Cook County Independent Inspector General claimed after an investigation that the removal of toilets from an unoccupied mansion next door to the governor’s principal Chicago residence, in an apparent attempt to lower its property tax bill, was a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers of over $300,000. Pritzker himself did not appear to be personally implicated.

Interestingly enough, WBEZ also pointedly mentioned that Mrs. Pritzker’s personal assistant Christine Lovely has retained former federal prosecutor Reid Schar as her attorney, but the article does not claim that she is under investigation. Lovely and Muenster each signed affidavits claiming the property in question had been uninhabitable and vacant since 2012. The governor’s office confirmed to me that Lovely is still Mrs. Pritzker’s assistant.

“There are no signs that criminal charges are imminent,” the WBEZ article claimed.

Indeed, the former Cook County assessor, who reduced the Pritzkers’ property tax bill, and the reformer who defeated him last year both told the Chicago Tribune that they were unaware of any federal investigation, which seems a bit odd.

And I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the county inspector general last week, asking for copies of any federal subpoenas relating to the issue and was told, six months after the federal investigation supposedly started, they had no such documents.

As we all have seen over the years, federal investigations can take lots of time and sometimes only result in the reputational damage of being investigated. The feds have high conviction rates, but that’s partly because they carefully choose whom to indict.

For instance, the Sun-Times reported last week that testimony in the criminal trial of a former employee of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown revealed the feds started investigating Brown in 2014. Five years later, she’s still under a cloud with no end in sight.

A federal investigation of Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino was first reported in 2016, when grand jury subpoenas of his former legislative campaign workers were revealed. Three years hence, no public statements have been issued about where the investigation stands.

Setting aside the potential (if any) legal consequences, this story could obviously damage the governor’s ambitious spring legislative agenda. Republicans will have a new rallying cry to oppose his plans. Pritzker is counting on bipartisan agreements on a capital bill and on legalization of both recreational cannabis and sports betting.

The governor also needs every single Democrat he can get on his graduated income tax proposal, but some Democrats could become even more skittish than they already are about standing with him on votes that could hurt their reelection chances.

The piling-on began almost immediately. Ideas Illinois, the dark money group formed to oppose Pritzker’s graduated income tax plan, released a statement the morning the story was broadcast that read in part: “Governor Pritzker should immediately abandon his push for this massive Jobs Tax on middle class families because he can’t expect people to pay more when he is reportedly under criminal investigation for gaming the system to pay less.”

But, really, it’s just too early to tell what will happen to his overall agenda. Legislative leaders are usually not quick to make up their minds about how to deal with these sorts of things. It could all depend on how Pritzker reacts in the coming days. So far, they’re issuing the standard statement about how they haven’t been contacted about any investigation, but potential targets are only rarely whistled in by the G. Pritzker repeated his line from the campaign that all rules were followed.

Even so, all this has to be making the governor’s people sick to the very pits of their stomachs right now. Everything, and I do mean everything, is riding on what happens in the General Assembly during May. Significant failure would devastate not only Pritzker’s budget, but the other big things Pritzker wants to accomplish as governor.

Nothing like a little drama to spice things up, I suppose.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Grandson of Man - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 8:21 am:

    In 2018 this scandal was already well-known, while the voters elected Pritzker and Democrats. The elected officials have a deep responsibility to the people who elected them, to deliver on things like legal marijuana and a graduated income tax.

  2. - wordslinger - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 8:39 am:


    That’s the percentage of Pritzker’s $3.5 billion net worth represented by the $331K tax break in question.

    To translate for the masses, if you have a net worth of $100K, the same percentage would be nine bucks.

    I’m guessing for a guy who spent $171 million to get the gig, pursuing that property tax break might be the worst ROI ever, for all the trouble it’s caused.

  3. - wordslinger - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 9:03 am:

    From a journalistic standpoint, this episode is revealing and troubling.

    WBEZ chose to accuse a governor of being subject to a criminal investigation based on one anonymous “law-enforcement source familiar with the investigation.” That’s some careful language on the source, allowing for a range of possibilities.

    No evidence of subpoenas, grand jury, federales interviews, nada.

    That’s literally as thinly sourced as you can get without just making it up.

    But media outlets all over the state and the country picked up on the report and ran with it. As far as I can tell, not one independently confirmed with even a single source that there is indeed a criminal investigation.

    They’re not actually reporting that Pritzker is under criminal investigation, they’re reporting on the WBEZ report, and his reaction to it.

    And, not surprisingly, if illogically, the likes of the troncs and IPI used the WBEZ report to bash the concept of a graduated income tax.

    Is it kosher to run such a blockbuster based only on one anonymous source, and then for all media everywhere to pick up on it, without any independent confirmation of their own? I think it’s weak.

  4. - Steve - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 9:27 am:

    Smearing Pritzker without any indictment against him will become the GOP playbook in the comings years. Wait until the GOP reacts to the Burke (and others?) indictments before June 7 coming from the U.S. Attorney’s Office?

  5. - PublicServant - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 9:37 am:

    Nothingburger here, folks. We elected JB, after, horror of horrors, toiletgate broke. Case closed. Democratic support for a popular amendment to the Illinois Constitution won’t be affected by skimpy rumors.

  6. - Flat Bed Ford - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 9:41 am:

    Response to an Illinois Governor under federal investigation:
    “Nothingburger here, folks.”

    So Illinois. You get the government you deserve.

  7. - Grandson of Man - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 9:41 am:

    “Smearing Pritzker without any indictment against him will become the GOP playbook in the comings years.”

    This would be to distract from unpopular GOP positions, like protecting the rich at all costs from paying a higher state income tax. In Illinois, many see through this, so constant and vicious attacks on the likes of Madigan and Pritzker don’t work. Maybe something will break the camel’s back, but it hasn’t happened yet.

    Pritzker and Democrats have so much riding on what actually gets done in the next month and beyond. In my opinion, barring a federal criminal indictment, they themselves are their biggest risks and obstacles.

  8. - Nick Name - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 9:53 am:

    This is what the Rauner/Trump Republican Party is reduced to: they have no real arguments, no alternatives. They don’t even want a seat at the table to negotiate with the majority. All they do is demonize and discredit their opponents with lies.

  9. - Pot calling kettle - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 9:57 am:

    It seems to me that some Fed investigators, when they hit a wall, decide to leak that an investigation is going on. Instead of giving up in the face of no evidence of wrong doing, they drop a line to someone in the press in the hopes of stirring something up. If nothing comes up, there is never an announcement that the matter has been dropped. When they have solid lines of evidence, the first inkling is a raid or an arrest.

    If anything, an anonymous leak of “an investigation” seems to be a sign that the investigation is turning up no evidence of wrong doing.

  10. - Rod - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 10:06 am:

    I believe one issue over at WBEZ is the flood of journalistic talent over there. The truth is with shrinking news rooms more and more reporters are ending up there. There has to be a lot of pressure to get stories out on the air. There may be a fight for air time over there right now, WBEZ has acquired a lot of people from the Sun Times in addition to its own core staff.

  11. - Practical Politics - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 10:09 am:

    ” All they do is demonize and discredit their opponents with lies.”

    The Inspector General’s Report is not a lie. It is a matter of fact.

    It is a stretch to describe Rauner and Trump as allies.

    What is totally unfathomable is that Pritzker was aware of this issue for months and did nothing to quietly resolve the matter (i.e. by paying the amount in controversy) until after being investigated and the IG report’s release.

  12. - Annonin' - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 10:25 am:

    Speakin’ of GovJunk incompletes how is the Adams Co. grand jury going? Same for the GovJunk poison plant? Those two dandies make a flim flam over property taxes —- where no one died — not much of a big deal. But if that is all SpankyBaise and the Car Wash King have to work with that is it.

  13. - Lincoln Lad - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 10:32 am:

    JB paid the difference when the IG report came out. If this warrants a federal investigation, it could be politically motivated within the Justice Department.

  14. - Honeybear - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 10:50 am:

    Word, I think it was an influence operation.

  15. - Donnie Elgin - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:11 am:

    WBEZ would seem to have no bias against JB and looking over google news stories and the Tribune historical archive. WBEZ seems to always nail the story - only miss step was a retraction on a This American Life feature about Apple in 2012.

  16. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:17 am:

    A federal probe, but no one has been asked any questions? So what are the feds doing, a forensic analysis of the toilets to see if they are made of porcelain?

  17. - anon2 - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:38 am:

    === Is it kosher to run such a blockbuster based only on one anonymous source ===

    If it is false, it’s a shame the feds won’t so confirm. Instead, by refusing to comment, the feds leave a possibly false story lingering for as long as JB holds office.

  18. - Nonbeleiver - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:47 am:

    Don’t we all love and trust media reports of ‘Anonymous’ sources.

    Actually this issue does not really put the Gov in a shining light mode but that is far from investigation and indictment

  19. - What Source? - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:51 am:

    I’m keeping an open mind on the case, But Word echoes my thoughts regarding the single source and their possible motivations. Sure, it could be a legit unbiased leaker. But leakers leak fora reason. I’d like to know that reason. Is it some neutral True Patriot that sees a coverup and wants to expose it? Or a sour grapes irate Rauner fan, trying to help Team GOP by sticking this branch into Pritzger’s spokes? Or is it someone who had high hopes the investigation would lead to something good for themselves, and since it hasn’t gone anywhere since before the election, they’re poking it to keep a chance alive that there’s a “there

    Until we can get some confirmation, I’m considering it part of a dirty tricks ploy from the losing side. I’ll be sad if I’m proven wrong, since I really wanted to see the office and the state get the change of course promised in the campaign.

  20. - Jose Abreu's Next Homerun - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 11:58 am:

    When asked to pay his fair share, the would-be Gov flushed his opportunity.

  21. - Matt - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 1:36 pm:

    It’s odd that the billionaire pitching a “fair tax” is under federal investigation for tax fraud. The same billionaire who opened corporations in the Bahamas between 2008-2011.

    Yet his fair tax doesn’t index to inflation. And it includes a marriage penalty.

    Doesn’t seem very fair to me.

  22. - Grandson of Man - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 1:56 pm:

    “Doesn’t seem very fair to me.”

    Imagine how unfair it would be if he was pushing for a tax cut.

  23. - wordslinger - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 2:02 pm:

    –WBEZ would seem to have no bias against JB…–

    I guess that they’re not part of that Democratic Media conspiracy Kass sees in his fever dreams (what happened to The Combine, anyway?).

    Again, one unnamed source is as thin as it gets, no matter the media outlet. And every other media outlet is running with it despite not having a clue as who the source is or any independent confirmation of their own.

    The federales may never say anything more about it, even if they are looking into it.

    Anyone heard a peep about the NRI “scandal” lately? It’s been five years now.

  24. - Dotnonymous - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 2:08 pm:

    Why wouldn’t an honest unbiased leaker/source/informant come forward publicly?…I wonder.

    What’s to hide?…I wonder.

  25. - Nick Name - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 2:35 pm:

    ===It is a stretch to describe Rauner and Trump as allies.===

    I did not describe them as allies. I merely said that the GOP we have now is the party that they created. Though admittedly the GOP was well on the way to this by the time Rauner took hold of it in Illinois and before Trump took hold of the national party.

  26. - H-W - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 3:10 pm:

    I am with WORDSLINGER on this. There is no there, there. This is an old story about an older issue that was resolved with a payment of back taxes. The breaking of a new report that may be a new investigation about an old story is not newsworthy - at least not yet. I do not know WBEZ, and will not assume they are biased. However, I would suggest that the story itself is sophomoric. In the absence of any evidence regarding what that theorized investigation might actually be investigating beyond what is already known and resolved, this is simply fodder for partisans on the right to suggest we should not raise tax revenues because the governor tried to avoid paying taxes. Again, there is nothing there, there, except theoretical spin at this point.

  27. - revvedup - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 5:29 pm:

    JB paying back his (allegedly) ill-gotten tax break does not negate the fact that the U.S. mail (allegedly) was used to perpetuate an (alleged) fraud on the County of Cook. If the facts turn out to show a crime, JB can used the payback as “evidence in mitigation” for sentencing purposes.

  28. - Anonymous - Monday, Apr 29, 19 @ 8:31 pm:

    As the Assistant U.S. Attorney in St. Louis said in this article:

    “the investigation was timed so that it would not have any impact on Stenger’s bid for reelection in 2018, pursuant to Department of Justice policy.”

    Lookiong at JB now certainly will not interfere with any election.

  29. - Da Big Bad Wolf - Tuesday, Apr 30, 19 @ 10:24 am:

    ==The Inspector General’s Report is not a lie. It is a matter of fact.==
    It’s neither. It’s opinion.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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