A spokeswoman for Lightfoot’s campaign said it’s giving back about $42,000 in contributions to various Rossi-affiliated entities at their request.
“Our team executes a rigorous vetting process on every contribution with all campaign finance rules and laws. To avoid even an appearance or implication of an issue, we are complying with the request that contributions related to the businesses in question be returned. It is our understanding that those contributions will be donated to charity,” campaign spokeswoman Christina Freundlich said in a statement.
An executive order issued by former mayor Rahm Emanuel and continued under Lightfoot prohibits campaign contributions by registered lobbyists. Another rule limits those who contract with the city, or with sister agencies such as the school district or Chicago Park District, from contributing more than $1,500 to any Chicago elected official or candidate during a single year.
Rather than personally contributing to Lightfoot in his own name, Rossi contributed to the mayor through entities tied to his hospitality and real estate interests, making it unclear if the donations were proper under the executive order banning campaign cash to the mayor from registered lobbyists.
Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, told Crain’s it remains “an open question” whether the kind of contributions made by Rossi’s companies violate the executive order.
“One issue that the board has never had to address is does the executive order contemplate that it’s just a contribution from the lobbyist or does it also contemplate contributions from any company that lobbyist owns either in full or in part,” he said.
Rossi, who is an attorney, had been a registered lobbyist since 2019 and reported lobbying that year on behalf of The Herbal Care Center, a Near West Side cannabis dispensary, and two real estate firms.
In 2022 he reported lobbying for four companies, including 2017 Mendell Baker llc, owned by Baker Development Group, which received a tax incentive from the City Council in the fall, over the objection of the Lightfoot administration, for a building in Bucktown that will house a generic erectile dysfunction drug maker.
Rossi reported earning $60,000 in 2021 and 2022 from the engagement through his law firm City Lake Law.
The city’s lobbying database shows Rossi terminated his lobbyist registration on November 29. A spokeswoman told told Crain’s Rossi’s lobbying engagements “have all closed.”
“Contributions were made to the mayor’s campaign and aldermanic candidates by companies in which Mr. Rossi has a small, minority interest. While we believe these contributions are appropriate, at his request, those companies have asked that they be refunded in order to avoid any suggestion of impropriety. Once these contributions are refunded, 100% of those funds will be donated to charity,” said Becky Carroll, a spokeswoman for Rossi.
The Lightfoot campaign did not return $11,000 in contributions from Hubbard Steak, which Rossi says he no longer has an ownership stake in.
The second issue is whether Rossi-related companies violated the city’s ethics code by making the contributions despite the $1,500 limit on donations by those who hold city contracts. Rossi has a stake in Chicago Parking Solutions, which the Sun Times previously reported has a contract with CPS to use school lots to park cars during Chicago Cubs games.
Under the city’s campaign finance rules, “persons or entities” who are registered lobbyists may not contribute more than $1,500 to any Chicago office holder or candidate. The restriction also applies to anyone who has or is seeking more than $10,000 in business with the city or a sister agency during any twelve-month period.
Those limits apply to an individual and any “affiliated entities,” such as related companies. The Chicago Board of Ethics says “different llc’s with the same members or corporations sharing the same directors and majority shareholders, or that operate out of the same address, will likely be considered ‘affiliated entities.’”
Berlin said it would require a “factual investigation” to determine if the series of Rossi contributions violated the ordinance.
“If there’s enough overlap,” he said, “if they’re considered affiliated companies, then all together you aggregate their contributions and all together they are subject to a single $1,500 per candidate per calendar year limit.”
Berlin wouldn’t say whether the board was investigating the contributions.
One set of entities affiliated with Rossi that contributed to Lightfoot in 2022 all share addresses at either 110 W. Hubbard St. or 112 W. Hubbard St., which are owned by Rossi. Another group of Rossi-affiliated companies that share an address at 170 W. Washington St.–where Rossi operates operates Cardozo’s Pub with offices upstairs–also made contributions. Among them were Chicago Parking Solutions, which gave $2,500.
The returned donations mark the second time this week Lightfoot has drawn criticism over campaign contributions. Housing activists and frequent Lightfoot critic Ald. Ray Lopez raised red flags over a $25,000 contribution from Morningstar Founder and Chicago Fire owner Joe Mansueto that came months after Lightfoot helped push through approval of a controversial training facility for the soccer club on the city’s Near West Side.
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