Donors to political committee supporting Paul Vallas are secret, but leadership has ties to current campaign – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

A recently launched East Coast political committee has spent more than $165,000 on TV and digital ads for Paul Vallas’ mayoral bid, and while its supporters so far remain a mystery, its spending and leadership have ties to a top Vallas strategist.

Like all so-called independent expenditure committees, the new Chicago Leadership Committee is not allowed under state law to coordinate with any candidate or campaign it supports, which in this case is Vallas’ mayoral bid. But recently disclosed campaign finance reports show the Chicago Leadership Committee paid $165,000 to Mad River Communications, a Maryland-based firm registered under the name of Vallas campaign adviser Joe Trippi.

Trippi, a well-known national Democratic consultant, denied any coordination between the new political committee and the campaign for Vallas, a former CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

In an interview with the Tribune, Trippi said there has been “zero” coordination between him and the Chicago Leadership Committee and added that he “took a leave of absence (from Mad River) when I joined the Vallas campaign” and that he has “not communicated with anybody over there.”

Still, a review of one Chicago Leadership Committee ad shows it using the same messaging and word-for-word language that Vallas’ campaign has on the media page of its website, along with still images and video from the site. It also includes a suggested target audience of “consistent municipal election voters across Chicago.”

The ad, first reported by Crain’s Chicago Business, declares Vallas is a “lifelong Democrat” who will “bring accountability to City Hall, holding everyone, including police officers and even himself, accountable … ensure that Chicago is a safe haven for women whose abortion rights are denied in other states” and enforce the statewide assault weapons ban.

Called “redboxing,” that copy-and-paste strategy is being employed by other political committees and campaigns across the nation. Campaign finance watchdogs say the practice effectively erodes the firewall that’s supposed to exist between the committees and the candidates and campaigns they support.

“Campaigns have lawyers look at what they’re posting in that box, what’s available, to make sure that it’s posted to the public and anybody can use it, including, by the way, people who want to attack you,” Trippi said. “It’s gotta be available to the public.”

Meanwhile, another political action committee supporting “pragmatic” aldermanic candidates, Get Stuff Done PAC, pulled videos and images of candidates from Facebook.

Alisa Kaplan, executive director of the political transparency group Reform for Illinois, said “connections between these supposedly independent committees and candidate campaigns are common, and it’s a big reason why independent expenditure committees are so problematic. Even when there’s no actual coordination, someone could reasonably look at a situation like this and assume there was. All that shadiness and uncertainty undermines the public’s trust in the whole system.”

While the Chicago Leadership Committee is detailing how it is spending money, who it is receiving money from remains unclear.

The committee has received all its money from an entity that calls itself Better Chicago Future Inc., which shares the same Philadelphia-based P.O. box as the political committee it donated to. The Better Chicago Future website is bare-bones, only disclosing its goals as advancing “public safety and transparent City government for all Chicagoans.”

What’s more, the Chicago Leadership Committee did not disclose any of those contributions until after its spending had begun, according to state campaign records, and while it reported those contributions on Wednesday, records show three tranches of money came in beginning on Feb. 1. Reports of donors are required to be filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections for any contribution of $1,000 or more within two business days of receipt less than 30 days before an election.

The new committee, which was formed in December, is headed by Washington-based political consultant Christopher Cooper, records show. Cooper is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and current lobbyist for the Potomac Square Group, which has done work for, among others, controversial former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Gabbard ran for president in 2020 as a Democrat but left the party amid claims she had sympathies with Republicans.

The committee’s address is the same as Spruce Street Consulting, a Philadelphia-based firm founded by Victoria Perrone, who was most recently treasurer and operations director for the campaign of Democratic U.S. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. She also worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, according to her bio.

Asked to address its choice of Trippi’s firm for its media buy, the Chicago Leadership Committee said in a statement Thursday it worked with a variety of vendors to achieve its goal of educating voters on the mayor’s race.

“As an independent organization, CLC has strict policies in place to ensure independence and non-coordination with any candidate or candidate’s committee,” according to the statement. “These policies apply to CLC’s vendors, who have been vetted to ensure they are compliant with CLC’s strict non-coordination policy.”

CLC’s statement did not address why it shared an address with its sole donor. A Spruce Street consultant did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. And an email to the contact listed on Better Chicago Future’s website was not returned.

Trippi said that while he and Cooper worked together in the past, he has not spoken with Cooper in years.

“I’ve worked with just about every consultant on the Democratic side,” he said. “I haven’t talked to him about this campaign, about Chicago, I haven’t talked to him in a long time, maybe even prior to COVID.”

Trippi managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and California Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2010 reelection bid. He briefly worked for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart when he considered running for Chicago mayor in 2011.

Reform for Illinois’ Kaplan said the lack of clarity around who was behind the donations was troubling.

“This is just ridiculous. Examples of dark money groups like this have been piling up in Illinois, and we have to do something about it. You shouldn’t have to be a detective to figure out who’s paying to influence you — that undermines the whole point of disclosure rules,” she said. “Several states, including California, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, have laws that require big contributions to be traced back to their original source, and we’ve drafted similar legislation for Illinois.”

As for the late disclosures of the donor, she said, “We’ve seen some pretty flagrant recent examples of committees flouting disclosure rules like this,” noting a recent Tribune investigation that disclosed a different independent expenditure committee active in Illinois Supreme Court races last year failed to disclose the bulk of its $7.3 million in spending until after the election.

“If it turns out current law isn’t enough to make committees comply, we should change the law,” Kaplan said.

Fines for late filings can be relatively small, ranging from $500 for a first violation to $3,000 for subsequent violations, said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

With a little more than two weeks before the Feb. 28 Election Day, more independent expenditure spending is expected.

Another group, New Leadership for Chicago, has raised $100,000. Its backers are unclear: Its sole donor is New Leadership for Chicago Ltd., which shares the same name and address as the political committee. Also, its stated purpose is vague: “to make independent expenditures in support of candidates.” Its chairman and treasurer is Adam Gypalo, vice president at Chicago-based Resolute Public Affairs, which was long tied to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Gypalo declined to comment.

Another independent expenditure group set up to support Mayor Lori Lightfoot, The 77 Committee, logged $71,000 in spending against Brandon Johnson’s mayoral campaign this week, according to state records. The fund has raised separate concerns for being able to accept contributions from city contractors barred from giving directly to the mayor’s campaign. It ended 2022 with roughly $85,000 in the bank, and raised another $65,000 at the end of January.

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