Pritzker to pay inner circle from private funds

Local News
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ILLINOIS (WCIA) — In a move that oversteps the ethical guidelines and legal advice provided to his predecessor, Governor-elect J.B. Pritzker plans to pay top aides in his inner circle out of his personal wealth.

In addition to a state salary of $148,000, Pritzker’s Chief of Staff and former campaign manager Anne Caprara will make an additional $150,000 in payments from East Jackson Street, LLC, a private company the transition team says is solely funded by Pritzker. 

According to documents the Pritzker transition team provided to WCIA, Deputy Governors Christian Mitchell, Dan Hynes, and Jesse Ruiz, and adviser Nikki Budzinski will each earn a total of $278,000, the cost split evenly between Pritzker’s company and Illinois taxpayers. 

In similar fashion, Emily Bittner, Pritzker’s communications chief, will take home $174,000 annually. Press Secretary Jordan Abudayyeh will earn $150,00 a year. 

While the disclosure adheres to a measure of transparency not seen in recent years, it also invited immediate criticism from government watchdog groups who raised a host of questions about a dangerous precedent they say could lead to greater risk of corruption, and the appearance of misplaced loyalties. 

“If the law allows this, what’s to say the law doesn’t allow a different LLC — whose donors we’re not familiar with — to supplement the salaries of state employees,” asked Alisa Kaplan, the Policy Director at Reform for Illinois, a group that shines a spotlight on campaign finance and ethics in government.

“Do we want a system where companies or individuals can pay state employees on the side,” she asked. 

Rachel Leven, Policy Manager for the Better Government Association, raised similar concerns. 

“While it may have been good intentioned, this is unprecedented and therefore opens up a lot of procedural and ethical questions that we hope the incoming Governor’s staff and legislators will consider,” Leven said in an email. “For example, what if another private individual or entity wanted to fund state positions. Could a future governor create a private fund based on donations from other individuals? What are the rules that would govern this?”

“We’re all for the state paying its employees well,” Kaplan added. “But if [Pritzker] wants to raise the salaries of his top employees, he should go directly to the legislature and ask them to raise it like he did with the agency heads.”

Outgoing Governor Bruce Rauner chafed against legal advice and legislative warnings that cautioned against paying government employees on the side. However, multiple sources with direct knowledge of Rauner’s private arrangements allege that he established unique payment arrangements with Deputy Governor Trey Childress and his Executive Assistant Holly Griff. 

While the official public stance of the Rauner administration was not to engage in those practices, the sources claimed Rauner ignored those warnings and paid them anyway, opting to keep the arrangements out of the public spotlight. The Governor’s office did not to respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Sources with direct knowledge of the legal advice given to Rauner say state employees in his office serve at the pleasure of the governor, and can he hired or fired at will; however, their duty and allegiance is to the office and to citizens of the state, not to the individual who hired them for the job. 

Several of the employees were also key players in the Pritzker campaign. State law requires government employees do campaign work on their own time, and prohibits them from combining the two. 

“They are state employees and subject to the laws governing state employees’ political activity,” Abudayyeh said, “and these funds are not for the purpose of compensating staff for any outside political activities.”

Other Republican lawmakers scoffed at the silence from AFSCME, the union that represents state workers. 

“How in the world is the union that represents them not asking those questions,” one complained, adding that AFSCME regularly hounded Rauner in public condemnations.

“Obviously the incoming administration believes its employees should be paid fairly,” said Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31. “So making certain that frontline workers are paid fairly and Rauner’s illegal four-year freeze on step progression is ended must be among its first priorities.”

Kaplan, who works for a group that lobbies for reforms in Springfield, suggested that “…the remedy would be to bar corporate entities or individuals from supplementing state salaries.”

Another incentive to institute such a firewall is rooted in recent state history. Deputy governors Bradley Tusk and Doug Scofield both emerged as key whistleblowers who were instrumental in exposing the corruption of now-jailed former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Government watchdogs suggested Pritzker’s personal payments to his top aides might provide strong incentive for them to keep quiet in the event of wrongdoing.

*A previous version of this article mispelled Rachel Leven’s last name. 

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