Illustration by Shane Tolentino

It’s no secret that Bill Conway’s father is the principal donor for his son’s campaign for Cook County State’s Attorney. Conway’s father, William E. Conway, Jr., injected half a million dollars into the race the day after his son declared his candidacy, and has donated $10.5 million in total to the campaign. For the uninitiated, William E. Conway Jr. is worth $3.1 billion (as of March 7), placing him among the richest people in the United States. His wealth has primarily come from the Carlyle Group, an investment firm he co-founded in 1987. It is one of the largest private equity firms in the world.

When asked about his father’s largesse in an interview with the Weekly, Conway doesn’t hide the fact that there’s pretty much no limit to how much the elder Conway will spend to back him in the race. He is quick to point out that he never worked for his father’s firm and says he is unfamiliar with Carlyle’s investments. “It’s not that I’m afraid to talk about it,” Conway told the Weekly. “I haven’t been shy about the fact that I am going to dedicate significant resources to this race.” In an interview with WLS radio, Conway described a humble upbringing by his “single” mother, despite the fact that his parents are still married and appear to spend their money jointly—including on the tuition for Conway’s education at the Latin School of Chicago, a private elementary and secondary school he attended in the Gold Coast, and on multimillion-dollar homes scattered across the country.

For the Carlyle Group, political spending on such a large scale isn’t unusual, but donating these amounts to a Democratic candidate in a local race is. Since 1990, the firm has given $9 million to Republican political candidates and $6 million to Democrats. Companies owned or controlled by Carlyle have donated $11.7 million to Republicans and $1.8 million to Democrats.

Allan Holt, the managing director of the Carlyle Group, is the second-largest contributor to Conway’s campaign, having given $200,000. Gregory S. Ledford, a senior advisor at the Carlyle Group, donated $50,000 in October 2019. Peter Clare, a member of Carlyle’s board of directors, donated $30,000 in December. The Carlyle Group is based in Washington, D.C., where all three of these donors reside. On its face, that isn’t surprising; Chicago politics draws national attention and the goings-on in the city have national ramifications. But this level of cash influx from D.C. is unusual for downballot races.

Much has been written about Carlyle’s investments, which can be found not only in the war industry but in port facilities, industrial complexes, and oil refineries worldwide. The company also had close ties with former president George H.W. Bush—a former Carlyle advisor—many of the Bush administration’s top officials, and even the Bin Laden family, who invested heavily in the Carlyle Group both before and after September 11. During the Iraq War, Carlyle Group subsidiaries received billions of dollars from the defense industry, and in the aftermath of the invasion, Carlyle and its subsidiaries received millions of dollars in contracts to rebuild the country. To this day, the group remains a company with significant investments in military and defense industries. Carlyle also owns a piece of Combined Systems Inc., which supplies tear gas and other protest-suppression materials to officials as far-ranging as the Ferguson, Missouri police and the Mubarak government during the 2011 Egytian uprising.

In his interview with the Weekly, Conway stressed that his father’s significant contributions to his campaign would make him independent of the local Democratic Party. “I am running against an entrenched political machine,” Conway said. “When I’m elected, I’m not going to owe anybody anything, and that’s why I can promise there is going to be a public corruption reckoning when I am elected.” But it stands to reason that despite Conway’s claims, he would necessarily be accountable to his largest donor.

One of Conway’s recurring criticisms of incumbent State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is this: although Foxx returned campaign donations from 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke, who was federally indicted last year on fourteen counts of corruption, she didn’t return all the money given to her by other donors who attended a fundraiser at Burke’s home. “We’re not just talking about some regular funder, but perhaps the largest favor trader in the history of Chicago politics,” Conway told the Weekly.
However, many of Conway’s own donors have ties to Burke and other members of Chicago’s “entrenched” Democratic establishment.

M. Jude Reyes and J. Christopher Reyes—brothers who own the food and beverage distribution company Reyes Holdings, which distributes Coca-Cola products throughout the Midwest and is the ninth-largest privately held company in the country—donated a combined $30,000 to Conway’s campaign. The Reyes have previously contributed to Burke’s re-election campaign, Michael Madigan’s re-election campaign, and Bill Daley’s mayoral campaign.

Conway’s campaign treasurer, Thomas Anselmo, is a lawyer who represents creditors and debt-collection agencies who have wreaked havoc on the lives of Black Chicagoans living primarily on Chicago’s South and West sides, “profiting off the debts of Cook County homeowners through foreclosure, eviction, and other default-related actions,” according to Tides Advocacy, a liberal advocacy group. “Anselmo’s firm has been sued multiple times for violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which seeks to regulate abusive debt-collecting strategies.”
Liam Krehbiel, founder and CEO of the nonprofit venture philanthropy fund A Better Chicago, which works to improve education outcomes for low-income Chicago students, donated $50,000 to Conway. Before his donations to Conway’s campaign, Krehbiel’s largest political donations were to Bill Daley’s mayoral campaign and Bruce Rauner’s gubernatorial campaign.

Both Conway and his campaign chair, Trisha Rooney Alden, serve on A Better Chicago’s board. Rooney Alden is closely tied to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whom she previously fundraised for and donated to. And according to Tides Advocacy the Emanuel administration “wrote a loophole into the contribution ban for city contractors so that donors like Rooney Alden could contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Emanuel campaign even though her record-management company, R4 Services, had a contract with the city.”

In a city where Democratic politicians reign supreme, even a relatively small $2,000 donation from Jim Thompson, a former Republican governor and Nixon-appointed U.S. attorney, and his wife, is notable. Conway said the former governor has known him since he was young. “When he found out I was running, he was kind enough to make a donation to my campaign,” he explained.

Another Conway donor, Donald Wilson, who donated $20,000 to the campaign, is the founder and chief executive officer of DRW, a Chicago-based proprietary trading firm with over eight hundred employees. Just a few years ago, Wilson was mired in a year-long investigation for allegedly manipulating interest-rate derivatives. U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Sullivan eventually ruled that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, an independent federal agency that regulates derivatives markets, failed to prove that DRW had generated about $20 million of illegal profit.

Wilson isn’t the only one of Conway’s donors who has had a brush with the law. Businessman Lester Crown, whose family has owned large stakes in Hilton hotels, Maytag, the New York Yankees, the Chicago Bulls, Aspen Skiing Company, and Rockefeller Center, donated a combined $11,600 with his wife to the campaign. Crown’s family also used to own America’s what was then largest defense contractor, the General Dynamics Corporation. In the 1980s, the many bribery and embezzlement scandals Crown was involved in frequently made the business pages of the New York Times—including when he gave $23,000 in bribes to Illinois legislators for bills that would benefit his construction supply business. Crown ultimately cooperated with a grand jury, and was granted immunity from prosecution. Conway said he “never heard about that,” and could not comment.

Rounding out the list of top donors are Thomas O’Reilly, who until last year was a portfolio manager on the high yield strategies fund at Neuberger Berman, and who donated $28,722.54; Howard Scott Silverman founder and CEO of the investment firm Agman, who made a $20,000 donation; and Raymond Ranelli, a senior advisor to the investment firm Welsh, Carson, Andersen and Stowe, who donated $15,000. Jeffrey Hecktman, who donated $20,000 to the campaign, is the chairman and CEO at Hilco Global, an American financial service holding company that is building a distribution center in Little Village on the site of a former coal plant. Hecktman was described in a Crain’s Chicago Business article as a liquidator who “assembled a hard-edged, high-pressure financial conglomerate built on corporate calamity” and collaborated with Harvey Weinstein in 2007 to start a fashion line.

That Conway, who himself is a former investment banker, has received these donations from investment executives is not in and of itself remarkable. However, taken together, the donations show the campaign is almost entirely funded by what is hardly a representative cross-section of the ordinary Chicagoans Conway says he wants to advocate for.

A fundamental reality of any campaign is that candidates are beholden to their donors. And in a sound democracy, being beholden to a wider group of individuals provides a necessary layer of accountability for any candidate. “I certainly believe in campaign finance reform and believe that people should be transparent about where their donations are coming from,” Conway said. “In my case, there’s no apparent conflict of interest between anything I’m doing and anything like that. I am very transparent about where I get my money from and go out of my way not to take it from places where there may be a conflict of interest.”

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Kiran Misra is a journalist and policy researcher. She last wrote for the Weekly about the Invisible Institute’s investigation of the CPD shooting of Harith Augustus.

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