Jim Dey | Phony paper in Pritzker toilet caper dogs campaign

Jim Dey | Phony paper in Pritzker toilet caper dogs campaign

Two days after their candidate was linked to an alleged financial fraud that scammed $330,000 from Cook County taxpayers, the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker is in full damage-control mode.

In doing so, it embraced the time-worn tactic of political combat — always attack, never defend or explain.

Pritzker representatives initiated their defense by denouncing an investigative report released Monday as "old news."

On Tuesday, the billionaire Chicago Democrat reimbursed Cook County for the property tax refunds he received.

On Wednesday, Pritzker tried to change the subject by launching a campaign attack against Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner on an unrelated topic.

Look for more of the same as the gubernatorial campaign approaches the Nov. 6 election. Polls have Pritzker far ahead of Rauner, holding a lead so large many political observers believe it will be impossible for Rauner to overcome.

Still, the consequences of the "fraud" label attached to Pritzker — a billionaire tax cheat who advocates raising taxes on others — will be hard to overcome, even if he wins the election.

The report prepared by Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard outlined in considerable detail how the alleged fraud was conducted and recommended seeking reimbursement from Pritzker.

"This is a politically leaked report without new information," the Pritzker campaign charged.

The issue itself stems back to 2017, when the Chicago Sun-Times reported how the Pritzkers won dramatic reductions in property tax assessments by reporting that one of their mansions located on Chicago's Gold Coast was "uninhabitable" because it had no working toilets and kitchen.

The new information in the 38-page report describes how the "fraud" was carried out and quotes from emails and affidavits containing false information the Pritzker family used to win a reduction — from $6.3 million to $1.1 million — in the property tax assessment of one their mansions. That's a $5.2 million reduction.

They arranged for a contractor to remove five toilets from the residence in 2015, sought reimbursements based on the house being uninhabitable back to 2012, and then restored one of the toilets while storing at least one other toilet in the basement for future use.

Blanchard said it was all part of a "scheme for obtaining money by means of false representations" that reflects criminal conduct.

This controversy is moving on two tracks — one political and one legal.

Regarding the legalities, this is another opportunity for the powers-that-be to demonstrate what everyone should already know. There are two sets of rules — one for the elite and another for regular Schmos.

In political terms, the report supports Rauner's contention that Pritzker is personally "corrupt." So the F-words will continue to fly in this campaign as Rauner pounds the "fraud" angle while Pritzker responds with his stock line that Rauner is a "failure."

Of equal interest, particularly to political insiders, is the backstory — who leaked the report?

Crain's Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz quotes Blanchard's office as saying the report went to five people — Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, County Treasurer Maria Pappas, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and two of Preckwinkle's aides. "Blanchard, Pappas and Preckwinkle say it wasn't them, and there's good reason to think that Berrios hadn't even read it yet," Hinz wrote.

Hinz reports that "some are speculating that Preckwinkle, who now is running for mayor and could use backing from state Democratic Chairman Mike Madigan, let the report out to weaken Pritzker some in the battle for dominance that's likely to occur between Madigan and Pritzker next year."

Rich Miller of CapitalFax speculated along similar lines that "Speaker Madigan probably wouldn't mind a weakened Pritzker."

Miller, who received a copy of the report, wrote that he "didn't get it from anyone of the list of senders or recipients" or any of their associates.

"I have no idea how the person who sent me the report obtained it," said Miller, who said he is "bound (to secrecy) by my word as to how I obtained a copy of it."

As if that wasn't enough bad news for Pritzker, Forbes magazine published its list of billionaires this week. It reported Pritzker's net worth fell from $3.4 billion in 2017 to $3.2 billion in 2018. He's still ahead of his sister, Penny Pritzker. She's worth a piddling $2.7 billion.

Despite the "fraud" label attached to a likely Pritzker governorship, the news is not all doom and gloom for Illinois residents.

For starters, given the lengths to which Pritzker went to reduce his outrageously steep property taxes, he obviously believes property taxes in Illinois are too high. Perhaps he'll try to do something about that statewide problem.

Second, many Illinois residents worn out by years of political scandal in Illinois spend an inordinate amount of time discussing whether their state elected officials are crooked. Pritzker's toilet caper will allow taxpayers to devote that time to more productive activities.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
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