A Long, Strange Trip

Calumet City alderman takes film junket to Miami. Not only did taxpayers cover the tab, his record keeping leaves some curious questions.

Calumet City Alderman Thaddeus Jones flew to Miami last summer to attend the American Black Film Festival, an event that showcases movies made by black filmmakers.

Airfare, registration and five nights at a trendy South Beach hotel ended up costing about $2,500.

Jones didn’t cover the tab, local taxpayers did, because the alderman claimed to be scouting film-related opportunities for residents of the blue-collar south suburb.

But the Better Government Association found a number of oddities with Jones’ trip – beyond the fact that there’s little evidence it benefited Calumet City residents and a strong indication the junket was instead aimed at furthering Jones’ personal aspirations to become a producer and attorney in the entertainment industry.

Perhaps the most troubling finding of the BGA’s three-month investigation was that Jones appeared to receive taxpayer reimbursement for his hotel stay even though government records indicate that his campaign fund covered the tab.

Jones, who also is a Democratic state legislator representing a south suburban district, insists he didn’t pocket any public money, and this is a big misunderstanding. "That would be illegal," he says. "I’m not trying to get into trouble." Briefed on the BGA’s findings, Calumet City Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush says, "I would hope that Thaddeus has an explanation for this."

Yet, he’s unable to provide records that would explain away the questions.

Here’s what the BGA found:

Last June, Jones traveled to south Florida for the four-day American Black Film Festival, which is described on its web site as "primarily composed of world premieres of narrative, documentary and short films. As such, it is the leading film festival in the world for African American and urban content."

Registration for the event, five nights at a hotel and airfare totaled $2,378, according to interviews, and Calumet City records obtained by the BGA under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The city government cut Jones a $2,378 check to cover his costs.

However, Jones also used his campaign fund to pay $1,069 for his hotel room, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections, which collects data from campaign funds.

There is no record showing Jones ever paid back the campaign fund.

In short, it appears taxpayers compensated Jones for an expense – his five-night hotel stay from June 20 to June 25 – that he didn’t personally incur.

Jones, however, says he personally paid for the hotel room in Miami – the reason he sought reimbursement from Calumet City. The campaign fund check paid for separate rooms he had booked for colleagues but forgot to cancel, Jones says.

Yet on campaign records he submitted to the elections board it lists "Lodging – candidate" as the purpose for the $1,069 hotel expenditure.

After the BGA raised questions about the expenditure, Jones amended his campaign records. It now says "fees for non cancelled rooms for ABFF" as the purpose for the Miami hotel expenditure.

However, Jones is still unable to explain why he gave Calumet City a copy of the campaign fund check, which he signed, as proof of payment for his hotel stay, if in fact he paid for the room himself. On the check’s memo it even says, "Lodging for Thaddeus Jones."

The BGA obtained a copy of the check and a June 16, 2012, letter Jones wrote to the hotel – in it he references a "payment in the amount of $1,069 for my stay."

To cut to the chase, the BGA asked Jones to show receipts for all hotel rooms he says he paid for or was reimbursed for – in other words, for the room he stayed in, and any rooms he booked for colleagues.

That, in theory, would clear up the BGA’s questions.

However, Jones was unable or unwilling to provide any documents to support his claims.

Another question this situation raises is why Jones used campaign funds for a trip that appears to have had little to do with politics or government. State campaign finance law is porous, but generally bars candidates from using campaign cash for personal use. The BGA and Chicago magazine teamed up in recent months to explore that wider issue, and found political candidates are regularly misusing campaign funds.

Jones, 42, holds the distinction of being the first African-American alderman in Calumet City’s history. A protégé of Frank Zuccarelli, the politically powerful supervisor of Thornton Township, he joined the council in 1997.

Jones is in his second term as state representative of the 29th District, which juts south from the city’s Roseland neighborhood to the northern tip of Will County.

State government paid Jones $64,717 last year, according to the Illinois Comptroller’s office.

Additionally, his total compensation in Calumet City exceeded $56,000 in 2012.

On top of that Jones and other aldermen can receive more than $5,100 a year for conferences, travel and conventions. Since 2003 Calumet City has paid Jones more than $26,000 for related expenses, according to public records.

That includes a total of $7,278 for the American Black Film Festival in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2012. Taxpayers even paid for Jones’ hotel and airfare when he attended a short play festival in Miami in June 2008, according to public records.

Jones owns what he describes as an entertainment company, and has said he aspires to make a short film about Calumet City. But he insists his attendance at the film festival, which screens short films, wasn’t business related.

He uses taxpayer funds because his purpose for going is to make connections that will lead to opportunities for young Calumet City residents seeking a career in the film or television broadcast industries, he says.

However, the BGA could find no evidence that locals have directly benefited from Jones’ excursions.

Jones says Qualkinbush and other council members have never objected, or questioned his seeking reimbursement from taxpayers. In fact, the council unanimously voted at an April 2012 board meeting to approve his attendance at the festival.

"I’m not hiding anything," Jones says.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.