Republican Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison faced a tough reelection battle last November to hang on to his seat representing a suburban district as he squared off against Democrat Dan Calandriello, an attorney and former Orland Park trustee.
Then, in the waning months of the race, Morrison gained a major financial advantage after a nonprofit pumped $300,000 into his campaign, the most that Morrison received from any single donor.
Calandriello said in an interview that his campaign had been going well, but, ”toward the end, it was financially lopsided — I mean we were getting outspent 10-to-1.”
Morrison ended up eking out a narrow victory.
The $300,000 in campaign contributions came from a recently created nonprofit called the Coalition to Cut Taxes.
It’s unclear what the Coalition to Cut Taxes is doing. The paper trail that typically accompanies the creation of a not-for-profit organization is scanned regarding the group. Their website is rudimentary. The woman listed as board secretary says she hasn’t been involved and wouldn’t provide basic financial information.
What’s clear is that the organization received major funding from the similarly named ballot initiative committee, the Coalition To Stop The Proposed Tax Hike Amendment — supported by hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin with more than $53 million and contributions from other wealthy conservatives.
A ballot initiative committee can contribute money to support or defeat a ballot measure but not to an individual candidate.
The committee led a campaign that blasted out TV ads urging voters to reject a graduated state income tax in Illinois — which voters did. After that victory, the committee began emptying its coffers.
On June 2, 2021 — two months after it was incorporated — the Coalition to Cut Taxes received $450,540 from the Coalition To Stop The Proposed Tax Hike Amendment, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records.
As a nonprofit, the Coalition to Cut Taxes can make contributions to individual candidates. It has made only two, each time to Morrison, state records show.
The Coalition to Cut Taxes was registered as a not-for-profit corporation with the Illinois secretary of state’s office in April 2021, but a spokesperson for the agency says it has no additional records for the group.
There aren’t any records of the organization having tax-exempt status in the Internal Revenue Service’s database, which was last updated Nov. 14. The Illinois Department of Revenue and the attorney general’s office said they also have no records of the group.
Morrison, who also chairs the Cook County Republican Party, did not respond to requests for comment.
Jennifer Schuster, who is listed as the board secretary for the nonprofit in state records, said despite her title with the organization she hasn’t really been involved with the group, so her knowledge was limited but contended the appropriate paperwork was filed with the IRS .
“I know the IRS has a backlog of like 21 million tax correspondences, so it’s not surprising you can’t find it,” Schuster said. “It’s a brand new not-for-profit created in 2021, so it’s going to take some time.”
The IRS backlog has been widely reported, including the fact that it’s delayed releasing nearly half a million nonprofit tax records, according to ProPublica. But the IRS says eligible tax-deductible organizations are up-to-date on its organization search, which the Coalition to Cut Taxes doesn’t appear in.
Schuster declined to provide any of the organization’s filings.
Schuster, who also was the treasurer for the Coalition To Stop The Proposed Tax Hike Amendment, said there is no relationship between it and the Coalition to Cut Taxes other than that money was left over and was contributed to the newly formed nonprofit.
She referred questions to attorney John Fogarty, a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association, who did not respond to calls or emails.
Zia Ahmed, a spokesperson for Griffin, said earlier contributions were done in compliance with the law.
“Ken has not made any political contributions in Illinois since he left the state in June and does not dictate how recipients direct their funds,” Ahmed said.
Billionaire Ken Griffin.
Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file
The Coalition to Cut Taxes’ website is barebones, with a landing page that provides little information other than how to sign up for a newsletter. It has a blue banner with the coalition’s logo and at the bottom of the page says, “Paid for by Coalition to Cut Taxes.”
In general, organizations intending to operate under a 501(c)(4) must notify the IRS within 60 days of its creation.
According to the IRS, a 501(c)(4) is a social welfare nonprofit that is allowed to advocate and spend money on political campaigns but whose primary objective should be to improve the community. It doesn’t need to disclose who has contributed to its organization but must file annual tax returns that are available to the public. A 501(c)(4)’s primary responsibility can’t be used to funnel money into politics.
The spending in the 17th District Cook County Board raced intensified in the final two months, Calandriello said, as Morrison was “in the mailbox twice a week” and airing TV campaign ads.
Calandriello attributes his loss to the influx of cash Morrison’s campaign received from the Coalition to Cut Taxes.
The group gave $200,000 to Morrison’s campaign on Sept. 9 and $100,000 on Nov. 7, one day before the election.
Matt Dietrich, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said these large contributions were possible after the campaign contribution limits were taken off when Morrison filed a notice of self-funding. This was done on Aug. 30, when Morrison lent his campaign $100,001.
“We had a huge reception, but, at the end of the day, we were outspent,” Calandriello said. “There is nothing we could’ve done differently.”
A complaint has been filed against the Coalition to Cut Taxes by Orland Park resident Michael Henry with the Illinois State Board of Elections, which held a hearing on it earlier this month. These preliminary hearings typically aren’t public.
Dietrich said the hearing involving Morrison’s committee and Coalition to Cut Taxes resulted in a recommendation that has been forwarded to the board for consideration at its Feb. 22 meeting.
“I think my experience in this race shows the problems with campaign-finance laws,” said Calandriello, who is not involved with the complaint. “I mean, I have to disclose a $150 donation came from my mom, but this kind of large donation, where we don’t know who is behind it, can kind of just funnel in so long as the spending cap is blown off. ”