Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has burnished her credentials as a progressive reformer by speaking out against nepotism.
“It’s inappropriate,” Preckwinkle said after her ally Joe Berrios hired his relatives in the assessor’s office in 2010, days after she took office for her first term.
But as Preckwinkle runs for Chicago mayor in next Tuesday’s election, a WBEZ investigation finds that her son, Kyle Preckwinkle, works for a private company that’s been paid millions of county taxpayer dollars in recent years.
Kyle Preckwinkle also was an employee of companies whose owners had benefited from actions his mother took as a member of the Chicago City Council, according to public records and Kyle Preckwinkle’s social media posts.
Reached by phone this week, Kyle Preckwinkle declined to comment when asked how long he had worked for his current employer and whether his mom helped him get that job.
“Why would I tell you anything about my work?” he said. “Why would I talk to you about my employer? Am I obligated to answer these questions? Don’t call this number ever again.”
Then, he hung up on a WBEZ reporter.
Public records show the Cook County Forest Preserve District has paid a total of nearly $4 million to his employer, Chicago Commercial Construction Inc., during Toni Preckwinkle’s tenure as County Board president.
“Toni had absolutely no influence over Kyle's hiring and it had nothing to do with city or county business,” Monica Trevino, a spokeswoman for the Preckwinkle mayoral campaign said in a statement sent Wednesday to WBEZ.
“Kyle Preckwinkle is a construction worker who has worked for several construction companies over the course of several decades. His work history is very typical of a construction worker in Chicago who works for multiple companies over their work life.”
Preckwinkle is one of 14 candidates in what polls suggest will be a close race to replace Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is not seeking another term.
With strong support from left-leaning labor groups such as the teachers and service employees unions, Preckwinkle has tried to position herself as the leading progressive candidate. Although she also has succeeded Berrios as head of the Cook County Democratic Party, supporters say Preckwinkle is an anti-machine, independent reformer, the kind of leader who would not be part of the deeply embedded culture of self-dealing and patronage at City Hall.
That narrative took a big hit, though, when the federal corruption case against Ald. Ed Burke (14th Ward) was unveiled last month. Burke held a fundraiser for Preckwinkle at his house and allegedly forced a political contribution to her from a businessman that Burke had tried to extort into hiring his private law firm.
And while Preckwinkle has supported the county taking legal action against Berrios’ nepotistic practices, she recently acknowledged hiring Burke’s son to a county job after she says the alderman told her that Ed Burke Jr. was “looking for a new opportunity.”
Now, Kyle Preckwinkle’s resume suggests that – although he was not on the county payroll – he is just one step removed from a patronage job.
Four contracts with the forest preserves
Ironically, the situation has only come to light now because Toni Preckwinkle is running for mayor of Chicago and the city has different ethics rules than the county.
The statements of economic interest that Preckwinkle and other county officials are required to file do not ask whether they have any relatives working for government vendors. But on the mayoral candidate disclosure she had to submit in October, Preckwinkle told the city’s ethics board that her son works as an “assistant construction manager” for Chicago Commercial Construction, which is based in the South Chicago neighborhood.
The answer came in response to the question of whether she currently has a relative or domestic partner who is an employee or owner of a city contractor. Her disclosure prompted WBEZ to examine whether Kyle Preckwinkle’s employer has done business with the county during his mother’s two terms as County Board president.
Records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show the Cook County Forest Preserve District paid more than $3.9 million to Chicago Commercial Construction under the Preckwinkle administration. The payments began in 2014, and the last check was issued to the company by the county in January 2018.
It’s not clear from public records when Kyle Preckwinkle started working for the company. And the Preckwinkle campaign spokeswoman would not respond to WBEZ’s request for more details about Kyle Preckwinkle’s work history.
As county board president, Toni Preckwinkle also is the head of the forest preserve board, often presiding over that body’s meetings. And the forest preserve district is led by her appointee Arnold Randall.
According to the company’s website, the forest preserve district has awarded four deals to Chicago Commercial Construction, to renovate sites at the Tinley Creek, Deer Grove, Miller Meadow, Beck Lake, Bremen Grove, Rubio Woods and Portage Woods forest preserves.
Those were listed among the public works projects the company has performed in the Chicago area “over the past decade.” Other taxpayer-funded clients have included the Chicago Park District, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the city of Elgin.
The company also says it completed work at four sites in Robbins for the Housing Authority of Cook County – whose board members and executive director are Preckwinkle appointees – and has done business with the Chicago Housing Authority, too.
Video on the county’s website of forest preserve district board meetings shows Preckwinkle presiding over the sessions as legislation affecting Chicago Commercial Construction’s contracts with the agency was approved.
Frank Kutschke, the company’s vice president, said Kyle Preckwinkle continues to work for Chicago Commercial Construction and that his actual job title there is “assistant superintendent.” Kutschke declined to comment further.
One of Preckwinkle’s rivals for mayor, former city police board head Lori Lightfoot, said Kyle Preckwinkle’s job for a forest preserve district contractor is “an obvious conflict of interest” and shows Toni Preckwinkle is neither progressive nor a reformer.
“It’s absolutely unconscionable,” Lightfoot said. “What it looks like is you’re facilitating a company to enrich itself merely because of the relative’s connection to the company.
“Taxpayer dollars cannot be used for these kinds of purposes. It just shouldn’t ever happen. It’s completely antithetical to any notions of good government.”
Only two candidates have relatives doing business with city
Kyle Preckwinkle’s current job isn’t the first one he’s held with a construction company that has seen its fortunes affected by Toni Preckwinkle’s official actions.
On his Facebook page, Kyle Preckwinkle had posted that he also worked as a “laborer” for two other companies on the South Side, Riteway-Huggins Construction Services Inc. and II in One Contractors Inc.
The Facebook page was taken down recently, and it did not detail when Kyle Preckwinkle started or stopped working for Riteway-Huggins and II in One.
Riteway-Huggins is led by Larry Huggins, a longtime government contractor and former member of the Metra board. Huggins, his companies and their executives have contributed more than $50,000 to Toni Preckwinkle’s campaigns, including two checks totaling $2,000 from Riteway-Huggins for her mayoral run.
As alderman, before she became county board president, Preckwinkle gave her backing to major real estate projects in her ward that Huggins was invested in, records show.
On three occasions – in 2004, 2007 and 2009 – Preckwinkle wrote letters in support of Oakwood Shores, a mixed-unit development that replaced public housing with the help of millions of dollars in city taxpayer subsidies. Huggins had ownership stakes in those projects, according to disclosure documents filed with the city and state business records.
Huggins resigned from the Metra board in 2013 amid allegations that he had pressured the agency’s CEO to give a raise to an employee at the request of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.
A woman who answered the phone at Riteway-Huggins said a recent management change at the company would make it difficult to confirm whether Kyle Preckwinkle had worked there.
II in One has contributed $21,000 to Toni Preckwinkle’s campaigns. That company’s president, Robert McGee, declined to comment when asked if the company had employed Kyle Preckwinkle.
An account said to be for Kyle Preckwinkle on LinkedIn, the job networking site, listed him as having worked as a laborer for “Mchugh.” James McHugh Construction Co. is a major, national contractor based in Chicago that has contributed to Preckwinkle’s campaigns and received support from her for a project in her ward when she was alderman.
A spokeswoman for McHugh did not return calls.
Although he has often commented on political matters on social media, even blasting his mother’s successor as 4th Ward alderman, Kyle Preckwinkle has not gotten involved in politics.
He only made headlines when he was accused of battery against a man on the South Side in 2012, but he was acquitted in a trial in Cook County Circuit Court.
Chicago police say Kyle Preckwinkle also reported being attacked in a robbery attempt in a park in 2002.
Toni Preckwinkle filed for divorce from the father of Kyle and his sister in 2013, after 44 years of marriage.
Besides Preckwinkle, only one other candidate for mayor – former city school board president Gery Chico – disclosed having relatives who do business with the city or work for a city contractor.
Chico listed his brother and sister-in-law, both of whom lead nonprofit groups in the city, and his father, Jesse, who has a printing company. Records show Jesse Chico’s company, Kopico Inc., was paid $671 by the Emanuel administration last year and a total of about $11,000 since 2010.
WBEZ Cook County reporter Kristen Schorsch and WBEZ City Politics reporter Claudia Morell contributed to this reporting.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @dmihalopoulos.