U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García is collecting nearly $70,000 a year in a taxpayer-funded pension while serving in Congress. Mayor Lori Lightfoot took $210,000 out of her retirement accounts to supplement her salary at City Hall — paying a big penalty in the process. And Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson has reported making $2,530 as a “media personality” on WCPT.
Each major candidate for Chicago mayor in the Feb. 28 election — with one notable exception — released at least part of their tax returns from the past four years, providing these and other glimpses into their financial lives among hundreds of pages of IRS filings. Providing fewer glimpses was activist Ja’Mal Green, who only released tax returns covering 2021 and 2020, while businessman Willie Wilson refused to share any tax return information at all, calling it “too personal.”
Disclosing income tax filings is a long-held practice in American politics, revealing not just candidates’ income but also how they’ve made their money, their financial interests and potential conflicts of interest if they’re elected.
The Tribune requests each year’s tax filing from Chicago’s mayor.
Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois, an advocacy group that promotes transparency in politics, did not comment directly on Wilson’s decision not to submit his returns, but said in an email those returns help answer essential questions about candidates.
“What kind of tax policies do they benefit from (or loopholes they exploit)? Who do they owe money to and how much? Who do they do business with? How have they managed their businesses? How much do they donate to charity? How much do they have in common with the people they want to represent?” Kaplan said. “Those are the kinds of questions tax returns can help voters answer.”
Similar to former President Donald Trump, who also refused to release his tax returns, Wilson “probably does not want to show that he made a lot of money and didn’t pay much in taxes,” said Ira Weiss, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business who specializes in tax strategy, financial accounting and venture capital. Wilson voted for Trump in 2016.
Wilson has made his wealth a centerpiece of his public persona. For decades, he has given generously to needy people, and he has stepped that up in the past year with high profile gas and grocery giveaways. Wilson has criticized Lightfoot for later launching city-funded giveaways, saying he is using his own money and not taxpayers’.
But how Wilson makes his money each year has been generally shrouded in secrecy, and the state’s weak economic disclosure requirements make it hard to tell more about his wealth. There are some clues, however, in the federal record.
When Wilson ran for U.S. Senate in 2020, he had to list his economic interests. That year, Wilson reported $511,579 in income from Omar Inc., his medical device company, and $175,000 from Willie Wilson Productions, federal records show.
In denying the Tribune’s request for his tax records, Wilson said, “I think it’s too personal. That’s the way I think it. I’m not in office yet.”
Asked if he would release his tax returns if he wins the race for mayor, Wilson said, “I probably wouldn’t have a problem then. But I’m not in office now.”
Lightfoot reported making $402,414 in adjusted gross income in 2021. Lightfoot also reported taking out $210,000 in early distributions from retirement accounts, the second year in a row where the mayor paid a penalty for taking out money.
Lightfoot reported $383,005 in total income for 2020, her first full calendar year in office, including more than $176,000 from an IRA.
Financial planners typically discourage individuals from making early pension withdrawals because of hefty penalties, which Lightfoot paid. Her team did not address questions about why she needed the extra income.
While working as a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown before becoming mayor, Lightfoot reported an average adjusted gross income of $971,626 from 2014 through 2017.
Lightfoot, who left the firm to campaign for mayor, paid an effective tax rate of 38.6% over the four years.
Adjusted gross income reported to the IRS includes wages, dividends, capital gains, business income, retirement distributions and other income that are adjusted to include things such as student loan interest or contributions to a retirement account. The Tribune’s calculated effective tax rate is the sum of total taxes reported from that span divided by total adjusted gross income.
In 2018, Lightfoot’s last year before becoming mayor, she reported an adjusted gross income of $813,000 from Mayer Brown, according to her tax filing.
In 2019, Lightfoot’s first year in office, Lightfoot reported making $497,000, according to a tax return released by the mayor’s office. Her effective tax rate was 30.7%.
Lightfoot, who was sworn in May 20, 2019, made $111,120 in city wages for the portion of the year she was mayor and $352,645 from Mayer Brown, the return shows.
Lightfoot officials previously said the mayor reported income from Mayer Brown in her first year as mayor because “there were still cash collections allocated to Mayor Lightfoot related to work in process when she was a partner at Mayer Brown.”
As mayor, Lightfoot earns a salary of $216,210. That amount hasn’t changed since 2006, though Lightfoot pushed an annual inflation-tied pay increase, capped at 5%, for the position, will go into effect for whoever is elected next.
Ald. Sophia King and her husband, Alan King — among the wealthiest pair to submit their filing — reported making $771,059 in adjusted gross income in 2021, their highest-earning year of the past four. Most of that — $664,879 — was royalties from Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, the law firm where Alan King is a partner.
Sophia King’s annual public salary is $127,464, according to the city’s data portal. King did not turn down an inflation-adjusted raise that will kick in next year, but because she is not running for reelection to her City Council seat, she will only receive that salary through May.
The Kings also claimed a $7,500 credit on an electric Jeep Wrangler, the records show.
In 2020, the couple reported $509,790 in income and earned a payout of $255,534 when Alan King left the law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath and sold his interest in the partnership, the returns show. In 2019, the couple reported $633,639 in adjusted gross income.
The Kings amended their 2020 and 2021 filings to account for a $100,000 COVID-19 disaster distribution. A campaign spokesman said it was a withdrawal from Alan King’s 401(k). His retirement plan administrator offered all plan participants a one-time withdrawal opportunity without penalty. The Kings used the money for debt consolidation and other expenses, the spokeswoman said.
The Kings paid an effective tax rate of 29.6% over the past four years.
State Rep. Kambium “Kam” Buckner reported $564,763 in adjusted gross income for 2018 — $364,159 from World Sport Chicago and $200,604 from Outfront Media, a billboard and advertising firm where he was vice president of governmental affairs.
He submitted his resignation from World Sport Chicago, a youth sports nonprofit, in January 2019, the month he was sworn into the General Assembly.
That year, Buckner reported $332,267 in adjusted gross income. He made $224,092 from Outfront Media and $57,965 from the state of Illinois after being appointed as a state representative.
Many state lawmakers have second jobs and they are largely free to pursue outside employment.
Buckner, a former University of Illinois football player, also reported $50,210 from World Sport Chicago, despite resigning from the organization in the first month of the year. The campaign said the organization was winding down and made exit agreements with employees. The $50,000 and some of the money paid in 2018 covered the work of closing down the organization over the remainder of the year, the campaign said.
WBEZ previously reported on Buckner’s earnings at World Sport Chicago, where his salary was significantly higher than his predecessor, and nearly tripled in just four years there, all while money spent on youth activities declined.
In 2020, Buckner reported $310,745 in adjusted gross income. That included $251,657 from Outfront and $58,323 from the state of Illinois. The next year, Buckner reported making $269,410 in adjusted gross income. That included $209,773 from Outfront and $58,642 from the state of Illinois.
At Outfront, Buckner is “responsible for regulatory affairs, public affairs, compliance, community outreach and the company’s policy direction in 14 states,” his campaign said.
Buckner paid an effective tax rate of 26.4% the past four years.
García, who filed jointly with his wife, reported $72,047 in adjusted gross income for 2018, when he was still a Cook County commissioner. For 2019, his first full year in Congress, García reported making $203,054. That included $65,959 in pensions and annuities.
García reported making $203,922 in 2020, including $62,754 from a pension, and $200,956 in 2021, including $64,639 in pension payments. García’s overall congressional salary is $174,000. García also draws pensions from Cook County from his time on the County Board, the state of Illinois, as a former state senator, and Chicago, where he served as alderman.
The Better Government Association previously reported that García in 2012 used a perk afforded to former City Council members to purchase pension credits and boost his retirement pay by about $15,000.
Johnson, the Cook County commissioner, reported $108,019 in adjusted gross income for 2018 as a regional organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. In 2019, Johnson reported $171,300 in gross adjusted income. He listed his occupation as regional organizer, though he also was serving his first full year on the county board.
For 2020, Johnson reported $160,217 in gross adjusted income. Johnson also reported $2,530 as a “media personality.” Johnson was not paid for his show on radio station WCPT AM-820, but was compensated when filling in for other hosts, his campaign said.
The next year, Johnson reported $161,371 in gross adjusted income. He also reported $1,350 as a “media personality” but claimed $1,450 in expenses and reported a $100 loss. His wife also reported making $1,941 as a doula that year.
South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer reported making $106,307 in gross adjusted income in 2018, $109,580 in 2019, $110,655 in 2020, and $109,972 in 2021. His current aldermanic salary is $130,248, and like King, he opted for the 2023 raise but will not receive it after the end of his aldermanic term in May. Though he is married, Sawyer has filed his last four years of taxes separately from his wife, who the campaign says is retired after 31 years as a coordinator at ComEd.
“My wife and I have been married 29 years and have never filed jointly. We simply made a decision that would be the best way to handle our finances, and it’s worked out very well for us,” he said in a statement.
Sawyer’s average effective tax rate for the last four years is 16%.
Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas filed jointly with his wife. Together they reported $149,318 in adjusted gross income for 2018. In 2019, they reported $238,631 in adjusted gross income. In 2020, they reported $99,652 in adjusted gross income and $102,399 in 2021.
A significant part of that annual income came from pensions and annuities, tax returns show — a total of about $350,000 between 2018 and 2021. Vallas is collecting pensions from CPS, the Philadelphia school systems and a Louisiana district.
Vallas’ consulting company also brought in $182,000 in gross income in that time span, though business has declined since 2018, when gross income was just under $90,000. Last year, it was $29,500. According to his campaign, that consulting work was with Charter School Renewal, Alternative Schools Network and Dream Center Education. Those contracts are inactive, according to the campaign.
The Vallases’ effective tax rate for the last four years is 15.6%.
Activist Ja’Mal Green only turned over two years of returns for 2020 and 2021 (he did not submit returns to the Tribune during his last mayoral run). He reported $88,728 in adjusted gross income for 2020. That included $76,242 from the proceeds of a short-term capital gain and $12,486 in other income, but he did not release the document showing what it was. Green also reported receiving unemployment income of $22,686 in 2020.
The next year, however, he reported donating $30,000 to charity. For 2021, Green reported $122,467 in adjusted gross income. That included $58,512 in wages and more than $60,000 in income from an S Corporation or partnership, Majostee Marketing, which Green said in a text message to the Tribune “helps large scale companies, small businesses, and unions in marketing, community outreach, and brand strategy.”
He claims he does not collect a salary from the company in “rough” years. The short term capital gain in 2020 was an “excess distribution” from Majostee.
“In 2020 we took a hard hit after loss of contracts due to COVID (where the unemployment came in), we rebounded very well into the next year,” Green said.
Green said the other portion of his boosted income starting in mid-2021 came from his role as president of My Turn To Own, a not-for-profit corporation “helping folks achieve homeownership as well as community development,” where he said he earns “six figures.”
As for the $30,000 charitable donation, Green said he gives “a lot to nonprofits including my own, My Turn To Own Inc, & Majostee Allstars, and donate to many others throughout each year. My donations focus on missions that promote financial literacy and mentorship of young people in Chicago.”
As of Dec. 15, Majostee Allstars was reported “not in good standing” with the Illinois secretary of state, and My Turn To Own was “involuntarily dissolved” in May. That charitable contribution boosted his tax deduction in 2021 to more than $40,000, up from the standard $12,500 the year before.
Green’s average effective tax rate for the last two years is 12.7%.
“As a serial investor, I don’t take salary’s (sic) or distributions on companies not operating in profit. I do have several other companies that I have shares in that are growing,” he said.