Chicago-Area Billionaire Gave Millions To ‘Patriots’ Group That Backed Pro-Trump Rally

Capitol
Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds on Jan. 6. A number of lawmakers and then the mob of protesters tried to overturn America's presidential election, undercutting the nation's democracy by attempting to keep Democrat Joe Biden from replacing Trump in the White House. John Minchillo / Associated Press
Capitol
Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds on Jan. 6. A number of lawmakers and then the mob of protesters tried to overturn America's presidential election, undercutting the nation's democracy by attempting to keep Democrat Joe Biden from replacing Trump in the White House. John Minchillo / Associated Press

Chicago-Area Billionaire Gave Millions To ‘Patriots’ Group That Backed Pro-Trump Rally

A billionaire businessman from the Chicago area has been the primary source of political funding for an ultra-conservative group that participated in the “March to Save America” rally that preceded last week’s deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, documents show.

Dick Uihlein — the Republican mega-donor who lives in north suburban Lake Forest and is CEO of the Uline business supplies company — has contributed nearly $4.3 million in the past five years to the political action committee of the Tea Party Patriots, including $800,000 in October, according to Federal Election Commission records.

The funding sources for last Wednesday’s rally against President Donald Trump’s reelection loss are not publicly documented, and it’s unknown if the Tea Party Patriots used any money from Uihlein toward the event.

On the website for the rally, the Tea Party Patriots were among 11 groups listed as “participating in the March to Save America” as part of the “#StopTheSteal coalition.”

The marchtosaveamerica.com website was not working Monday, but archived images of the page show event organizers pressed debunked allegations of widespread voter fraud in Democrat Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump.

And they urged a big show of force in Washington on Wednesday “to let the establishment know we will fight back against this fraudulent election.”

“At 1 p.m., we will march to the U.S. Capitol building to protest the certification of the Electoral College,” organizers wrote on the website, referring to the scheduled congressional vote to ratify the election results from the states.

The co-founder and leader of the Georgia-based Tea Party Patriots, Jenny Beth Martin, also heavily promoted the event. On her Twitter account, she wrote, “I will be speaking at the #StopTheSteal rally in D.C. on Jan. 6. We must demand Congress to challenge the Electoral College votes and fight for President Trump!”

Martin urged her followers to RSVP at WildProtest.com. That website was not working Monday.

Then, on Wednesday morning, Martin tweeted a photo of herself in what appeared to be a reserved, front-row seat at the rally, saying, “We will not allow them to steal this election!”

But within five hours, as the protests devolved into rioting, Martin was striking a more conciliatory tone, writing, “Keep it peaceful.”

After Trump spoke at the rally near the White House — telling supporters he will “never concede” and urging them “to fight” and to march on the Capitol — a pro-Trump mob overwhelmed security to storm into the Capitol. The insurrection temporarily suspended Congress and left five dead, including a police officer.

Federal and local prosecutors in Washington have charged dozens of Trump supporters from across the country with contributing to the unprecedented scenes on Capitol Hill. The alleged rioters who were arrested included Bradley Rukstales, a 52-year-old business executive and Trump campaign contributor from northwest suburban Inverness, who was detained Wednesday afternoon on the upper level of the Capitol, court records show.

Wednesday’s violent unrest has sparked heated debates over the culpability of Trump and his backers who falsely alleged that he actually won the election.

The Tea Party Patriots did not return messages, and Uihlein did not reply to questions sent by WBEZ to a spokeswoman for his company.

The Uline shipping supplies company is based in Pleasant Prairie, a Wisconsin town just over the state line from Illinois. Uihlein and his wife, Liz, have been among the biggest political donors in the country and in Illinois campaigns for years.

Dick Uihlein has shelled out more than $136 million to federal candidates and campaign committees, according to FEC records. He’s also contributed about tens of millions more to campaign in Illinois, most of that to the now-defunct Liberty Principles PAC.

In April 2016, Uihlein began to heavily support the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, a PAC started in 2013. Records show he gave it nearly $1.5 million in 2016, more than $1 million in 2017, $950,000 in 2018 and the single, $800,000 contribution last year.

That’s made Uihlein by far the single biggest donor to the Tea Party Patriots’ PAC in each of the last three two-year federal election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.

Records show the Tea Party Patriots had contributed in recent years to Trump and to Republican lawmakers, including members of Congress who sought to overturn Biden’s victories in hotly contested states. They included Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas and Mo Brooks of Alabama, whom House Democrats want to censure for his remarks at the Trump rally.

“The group lent its name to a rally that led to an insurrection,” said Don Wiener, a researcher with the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wis. “Donors bear some responsibility for the activity of the groups they fund.”

The Tea Party Patriots touts itself as the “largest and most effective national umbrella group within the Tea Party movement.”

In one of Martin’s tweets promoting the rally, she said she would appear in Washington to support Trump with Dr. Simone Gold, who has worked with the Tea Party Patriots to urge the swift reopening of the economy since early in the coronavirus pandemic.

Gold also heavily promoted the the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 sufferers. Trump repeatedly praised the drug, which medical experts say is ineffective in helping coronavirus patients.

Gold is in one of the photos taken at the Capitol that the FBI released Sunday, when the agency called on the public to “help identify individuals who actively instigated violence on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C.”

She told the Washington Post she was in the Capitol for about 20 minutes on Wednesday and gave a speech in the building’s Rotunda, but she said she did not see any of the violence.

In addition to the Tea Party Patriots, the other 10 groups listed as participating in the rally before the Capitol riot included Women for America First, which applied for the permit for the event.

Another group that participated in the rally was Turning Point Action, a sister organization of the far-right Turning Point USA group. Between 2014 and 2016, Uihlein’s foundation donated $275,000 to Turning Point USA, which is led by Arlington Heights native Charlie Kirk, according to records.

In a tweet he later deleted, Kirk took credit for “sending 80+ buses full of patriots to DC to fight for this president” last Wednesday. Kirk since has said the Trump supporters his group brought to the rally left after it and did not go to the Capitol.

He also said it was “not wise” for Trump supporters to enter the building, which was closed to the public. But Kirk quickly added, “Not wise does not mean you’re an insurrectionist, OK?”

A group of Republican attorneys general also have come under strong criticism for funding robocalls promoting the Trump rally, despite the incumbent president’s long string of court defeats in his effort to challenge the November election results.

Democratic Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul lashed out at these GOP counterparts, saying, “Those tasked with upholding the rule of law should be the last to engage in promoting an attack against our democracy through robocalls. Subsequently denouncing the predictable violence that grows from it does not clean hands!”

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.