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Dark money mailers fund McHenry County attack ads

Attack literature used in primary tied to Chicago printer, prominent Dems

Dark money.

Political insiders use the term to describe funds used to influence voters and sway elections.

Dark money comes from a secret source, and it’s distributed by untraceable groups with mysterious names. 

Names such as Illinois Integrity Fund.

The group sent multiple mailers before the March primary attacking several Republican candidates running for McHenry County offices.

With no record of the Illinois Integrity Fund on file, the Illinois State Board of Elections reached out to the group with a letter. It has received no reply.

Candidates targeted in the mailers are comparing the attacks to the smash-mouth political strategies of Chicago Democrats.

“Michael Madigan tactics are being brought here to McHenry County to disparage any opposition to the agenda of who these people are,” said McHenry County Board member Chuck Wheeler, a target of the mailers in District 4.

A connection between the mailers and state Democrats, including Madigan – the longest-serving speaker of any state House of Representatives in the country, and chairman of the Democratic Party for the past two decades – can be drawn with clues found on the mailers themselves.

One hint is a “union bug” – a label printed on the mailer that means the employees who created the materials are represented by a labor union. 

Another signal is the name of a Chicago-based company that printed the mailer: Breaker Press, a union mail house on the South Side.

Located in the 2400 block of South Western Avenue, Breaker Press in recent years has brokered political printing deals worth more than $8.9 million, according to campaign finance records.

Many prominent Illinois Democrats occupy the company’s client list.

Those Democrats include Madigan, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks.

Untraceable

Full color. Double-sided, heavy-stock paper. Big.

That’s how to characterize one of the mailers that targeted McHenry County Recorder Joe Tirio.

The ad features a manipulated photo of Tirio wearing a black sweatshirt, mask and gloves with his hands raised in a villainous pose.

“CROOKED JOE TIRIO,” the ad read, “AND HIS CHICAGO STYLE POLITICS.”

The ad accuses Tirio of managing a secret slush fund, using tax dollars to pay for a vacation and funding the “racist campaigns” of Orville Brettman and Ersel Schuster, two McHenry County Board candidates in District 6 who ran in the primary and lost.

Tirio was chairman of the McHenry County GOPAC, a political action committee that sent mailers to residents urging them to vote for Schuster and Brettman, a candidate tied to a right-wing extremist group called the Legion of Justice that engaged in a series of terrorist-style raids against left-wing groups in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

After the ads arrived at McHenry County homes, Tirio’s phone rang. He received texts. Messages populated his Facebook.

“Somebody, for whatever reason, is spending an awful lot of money to cause people to believe things that aren’t true, and in turn, cause them to vote for somebody they otherwise wouldn’t vote for,” Tirio said. “It’s a twist on fraud.”

Tirio looked up the Illinois Integrity Fund’s address online: 2815 Forbes Ave., Hoffman Estates.

He got in his car and drove to the wealthy Cook County suburb.

Inside the nondescript office building, Tirio found an insurance company and Regus office suites, where businesses rent out meeting spaces and use on-site mailboxes to retrieve their mailings. He found no trace of the Illinois Integrity Fund. 

Not on the property.

Not in the Regus business directory.

Nowhere. 

“If there’s no phone number, no email address and the postage is no good,” Tirio said, “you’re probably dealing with garbage. Till it into your flower bed and watch the flowers come up.”

State Board of Elections inquiry

Mailers such as the ones attacking Tirio, Wheeler and McHenry County Board member Michael Rein are expensive to produce – a fact that could be a problem for the Illinois State Board of Elections.

By Tirio’s count, the Illinois Integrity Fund paid for at least three mailers against three candidates, including one that was circulated countywide.

Wheeler spent $2,400 to send mailers to the more than 6,000 residents in District 4.

“This is not something that somebody did in their basement with [Microsoft] Word,” Tirio said. “These are professional. The design would have cost more than $5,000.”

The ISBE requires organizations to file a statement of organization if they spend more than $5,000 on campaign materials.

To date, the Illinois Integrity Fund has not registered any paperwork with the board. Officials said it is unknown how much the group spent on the mailers. The board sent a letter to the group’s Hoffman Estates address March 16. 

“This letter is to inform you of the possible need for you to file reports under the Campaign Disclosure Act,” wrote Tom Newman, director of the Campaign Disclosure Division. “It has come to our attention that your committee has been sending campaign advertising mailings to area residents.”

The board received no reply.

Committees that fail to report could face a fine of $50 a business day up to a maximum of $5,000, or $10,000 for statewide political committees.

The board also could seek an injunction against a committee to cease expenditures and operations until expenditures are disclosed.

Until then, the Illinois Integrity Fund could remain a mystery.

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