In response to a WBEZ investigation, a Cook County agency has launched a review of a land deal with the top aide to embattled Chicago Ald. Carrie Austin.
Days after WBEZ reported on the deal, Cook County Land Bank Authority officials said Friday they’re looking into the complex transaction -- which wiped clean a property-tax debt of more than $150,000 for Austin’s longtime chief of staff, Chester Wilson Jr.
“Yes, we are looking into the property since you brought it to our attention,” the land bank’s chairwoman, Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, told WBEZ after a board meeting Friday. “That property is under review.”
Federal investigators raided Austin’s ward office in June, and they sought documents pertaining to Wilson, according to court records. But nobody has been charged in the ongoing, wide-ranging grand jury probe.
The land bank deal with Wilson was for a two-story brick building at 10300-02 S. Corliss Ave., on Chicago’s far South Side. Records show Wilson bought the property in 2005 but fell far behind on his property taxes.
The debt was forgiven in 2018 because Wilson gave the building to the land bank, which acquires troubled properties and tries to sell them to rehabbers.
In the case of the Corliss property, the land bank then sold the building to south suburban businesswoman Lisa Livingston for $20,000.
Gainer and land bank officials say they always check to make sure the buyers of a property do not have any relationship to the previous owner.
On Tuesday, however, WBEZ reported that Wilson and Livingston had previously bought another property on the South Side together, and land bank documents show it was Wilson who recommended the agency sell the Corliss building to Livingston.
Gainer said she did not know why land bank officials did not find any connection between Wilson and Livingston, whose names appeared on a publicly recorded deed for the other property.
“I don’t know the details of their relationship at a prior building,” Gainer said. “We have our checks that we do, but we are always welcome to review the process, and if there’s a way to make it better, we will.”
Livingston has told WBEZ she had a business relationship with Wilson but did not know he had owned the Corliss building before she bought it from the land bank. Livingston did not immediately respond to calls Friday, and Gainer said she did not know if land bank officials have contacted her about her relationship with Wilson.
After completing its review, Gainer said, the land bank could attempt to take back the Corliss property and reinstate the taxes that had been owed by WIlson.
Before Wilson gave the building to the land bank, the unpaid taxes were bought by Boris Nitchoff, a contractor from Summit, at a county scavenger tax sale in 2016. Nitchoff could have acquired the property if Wilson did not pay the back taxes.
But Wilson gave the building to the land bank months before the deadline to pay off the tax debt, records show.
Wilson has declined to comment, and Nitchoff did not return calls.
Records obtained by WBEZ show federal investigators issued a subpoena for all records on Nitchoff, three relatives and five Nitchoff family companies, in addition to Austin, her family members and Wilson. It’s not known what exactly law-enforcement authorities are investigating.
Wilson has been a top aide to Austin since the mid-1990s. He is paid more than $118,000 a year for his city job and also has dabbled in real estate, at one point listing ownership of nine properties in or near Austin’s 34th Ward.
Gainer said she was familiar with Wilson but did not discuss the Corliss deal with him.
“I know Chester from around,” Gainer said. “I never talked to him about that property.”
State records show Austin helped Wilson win executive clemency from then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in 2014, for a felony conviction in 1993.
For 12 years, Austin led the City Council’s important Budget Committee but lost that coveted spot after Lori Lightfoot became mayor earlier this year. Lightfoot instead appointed the veteran alderman to lead the new Committee on Contract Oversight. Wilson moved with Austin to that committee three months ago, according to city personnel records.
But the Lightfoot administration blacked-out a section titled “references” in Wilson’s application for the new committee job. City officials say releasing his references would be “an unwarranted violation of the personal privacy of those individuals.”
WBEZ has filed a pending lawsuit against the city in Cook County Circuit Court for access to the deleted parts of Wilson’s personnel file, alleging violations of the state’s open-records law.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at