Chicago mayoral candidate Willie Wilson says he wasn't trying to buy anyone's vote when he handed out close to $200,000 to churchgoers.
The millionaire businessman said Sunday's appearance at the New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church was nothing more than "one of the biggest property tax relief assistance" events of the year and the kind of thing he's done before.
The Illinois State Board of Elections said Wilson didn't break any campaign finance laws because the money came from his non-profit foundation.
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, himself seeking reelection, joined Wilson at New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church at the event.
An aide to Wilson said the businessman gave away $300,000 to 2,000 people through the Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation, a 501(c)(3). Such organizations are tax-exempt, must not be organized for the benefit of private interests and are restricted in how much political activities they can conduct. Wilson says he organized the giveaway to assist homeowners who are struggling to pay their property tax bills.
"My wife and I have been blessed by God to be able to get a few of the material things out of life and so it's up to us to now continually to share back with all of you all and others," Wilson told church members during the event.
Wilson's campaign spokesman insists today's appearance was not campaign related. But Chicago politicos on both sides of the aisle raised concerns about the event.
"What the hell? Is Bruce Rauner using Willie Wilson and Corey Brooks to buy votes???" tweeted State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, a Democrat.
New Covenant, where the event took place, is actually led by pastor Rev. Stephen J. Thurston and not Corey Brooks as Welch's tweet indicates.
"Check this out if you wonder why Illinois politicians are often a national joke," Republican state Rep. David McSweeney said on Twitter. "How can Willie Wilson, a candidate for Mayor of Chicago, literally hand out CASH at a public event? This is so wrong!"
Wilson is known across Chicagoland for his generous charitable work. A man of deep faith, he supports various churches.
Reached by phone, F. Scott Winslow, Wilson for Mayor campaign spokesman, told WGN News Sunday's event was "absolutely not" a campaign event. Winslow says since Wilson launched his second bid for Chicago mayor, he's probably given away $500,000.
"While he happens to be a candidate, he's been a philanthropist for 30 years," Winslow said.
Winslow insists the campaign is not violating any campaign finance laws since it was not involved with today's handout. But the event certainly had a political feel.
During the event, Rauner also addressed the church in brief remarks. The governor shared with worshippers that he received an award from the National Black Chamber of Commerce at in event in Washington, D.C. this past Friday, and talked about his work reforming Illinois' criminal justice system and boosting education funding for schools.
With Wilson seeking to help property tax owners, Rauner did not pass on an opportunity to discuss his tax agenda. Rauner routinely rails against high property taxes.
"You pay the highest property taxes in America here in Chicago and the South Side and the south suburbs, " said Rauner. "This is wrong. The system is broken and I'm trying to fix it."
Rauner is facing Democrat J.B. Pritzker in November. Wilson is one of 10 candidates in the race for Chicago mayor.
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