For the past dozen years, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., hasn't reported paying any rent for his campaign office, records show, in what experts say could be a violation of federal election law or House ethics rules.
It's one of a series of questionable practices an investigation by the Better Government Association and Chicago Sun-Times found involving Citizens for Rush, the South Side congressman's campaign committee. Rush's campaign also has:
- Subsidized the South Side church founded by Rush, who is the congregation's pastor, giving Beloved Community Christian Church more than $196,000 since June 2004. Those payments apparently helped the congressman's church close on a building it purchased and stave off a creditor.
- Paid Rush's wife Carolyn Rush a year-round salary since 2007 totaling $404,000 as a consultant. That's nearly a quarter of the $1.6 million the congressman's campaign fund has raised in that time.
The 11-term congressman and former Chicago City Council member said through an aide he "tries to comply with all applicable House ethics, codes of conduct and campaign rules and regulations."
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Through his spokeswoman Debra Johnson, Rush answered a few questions about the campaign office in the Lake Meadows strip mall at 3361 S. Martin Luther King Dr. by email. Asked about not having reported paying rent — currently pegged by his landlord at $20,958 a year — he suggested there's a loophole in the law that allows him to use the storefront for free or at a discounted rent, though he did not say whether he gets the office rent-free or at a discount.
He also said he doesn't think he needs to include the campaign office — which he has used since he was 2nd Ward alderman and which has his name on the glass and his campaign posters from the 2012 election in the windows — in his campaign-finance reports because he uses it largely for storage.
"The office currently functions as a storage space for a number of Congressman Rush's [City] Council and party leader documents and materials," Rush wrote. "While Rush campaign-related meetings have taken place on isolated occasions . . . Congressman Rush has not used this location as an ongoing campaign office. Therefore, Congressman Rush has never concluded it to be necessary to list this location as a campaign office or to disclose any rents or utility payments for the location in his federal election campaign-finance reports and disclosures."
Experts on campaign finance, though, say Rush is required by law to report his use of the campaign office — either by reporting to the Federal Election Commission how much he pays in rent or, if he's getting the space for free or at a discount, to report the value of that to the FEC as an "in-kind" campaign contribution.
In either case, "it has to be reported," said Paul Ryan of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.)
Even if Rush's campaign committee doesn't pay a dime in rent, the 1,506-square-foot space still "has a value to the landlord," and that has to be reported, said Robert Walker, a former chief counsel and staff director for both the House and Senate ethics committees.
"If it is being used by his congressional campaign for storage and federal campaign meetings, it seems to raise a question if it is an in-kind contribution," Walker said. "If he is using it to store non-campaign items for personal storage or local campaign documents, it raises questions of House gift rules."
Michael Mallon, the property manager for the Lake Meadows strip mall, said Rush is a "longtime" tenant but wouldn't discuss his rent.
"I don't answer questions about whether or not a tenant is paying rent," said Mallon, who works for an arm of the development firm Draper and Kramer, which built Lake Meadows and is part of its ownership group.
The congressional campaign committee for Rush, 67, has not reported paying rent on the office — or getting an in-kind, or non-cash, campaign contribution — since 2001, records show.
Also, neither of the congressman's local political committees — Friends of Bobby Rush and his now-defunct 2nd Ward Regular Democratic Organization that he formerly headed — has reported paying rent for the space or listed it as an in-kind contribution, according to records dating to 2001 filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
The state agency requires political committees to itemize all contributions, including in-kind gifts, and expenditures of more than $150. The state only recently put limits on the size of contributions — now set at $10,500 — from a corporation or partnership per election cycle.
Rush is also Democratic state central committeeman for the first congressional district, an elected post.
The rent for the campaign space is listed at $20,958 a year, according to documents Draper and Kramer filed with the Cook County assessor's office, up from $16,788 in 2010. That lower rent figure was in effect at least since 2009. Before then, public records apparently no longer exist.
So, since 2009, the rent for the Rush campaign office should have amounted to a total of just over $90,000.
If Rush has gotten the space for free, that would exceed the $5,200 federal limit on campaign contributions an individual donor is allowed to give in a two-year election cycle.
Read more: No Rush To Payment
Congressman Rush a deadbeat when it comes to paying taxes he owes to government.
And if the congressman instead reported the office rental as a gift unrelated to his campaign, its value would far exceed the allowable limit for members of Congress. They are barred from accepting more than $100 in a calendar year from a single source other than campaign contributions or items from close family or friends.
It would be up to the FEC or the House Ethics Committee to determine whether Rush violated rules on campaign finances or gifts.
House Ethics Committee rules — which limit the use of campaign funds to "bona fide campaign purposes" — could be an issue in Rush's payments from his campaign fund to his church. The $196,419 he gave to Beloved Community Christian Church since 2004 — paid out in 29 donations — amounted to more than 8 percent of the $2.3 million his campaign raised in that time, according to FEC records.
Larger donations were made around the time Rush's nondenominational Christian congregation bought an 80-year-old English Gothic-style church building at 6430 S. Harvard — including $25,000 on Jan. 14, 2005, the day Beloved closed on the $800,000 deal and had to make a $200,000 down payment.
In 2012, the church settled a lawsuit filed by Hollub Heating Inc. over $3,285 in unpaid bills for furnace work done in 2009 and 2010, paying off the debt. Around the same time, the Rush campaign fund gave the church a similar amount of money.
The $404,000 that Rush has paid his wife as a consultant falls under the portion of federal election law that allows elected officials to pay family members a "fair-market" rate to work on their campaigns, though it doesn't say how that's to be determined.
It's unclear what role Carolyn Rush plays. The congressman's office has said she has been experiencing unspecified "acute" medical problems in recent months.
The payments to the congressman's wife came to $83,049 last year and $39,000 for the first nine months of this year and included a $7,549.12 bonus paid ahead of the March 20, 2012, primary, which Rush won in a landslide, with 83 percent of the vote against five other candidates. In January of 2012, Carolyn Rush had accompanied her husband on a trip to Liberia and Ghana sponsored by and largely paid for by CARE, the world relief organization, congressional records show.
Sandy Bergo and Chuck Neubauer are special contributors for the Better Government Association. They can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. BGA Senior Investigator Patrick Rehkamp contributed to this report. To contact the BGA's investigative unit call (312) 386-9201.