Illinois Dem Appears To Use Donor Funds To Pay Settlement to Political Rival She Bribed

Rep. Marie Newman (D., Ill.) / Wikimedia Commons
February 2, 2022

Democratic congresswoman Marie Newman (Ill.) appears to be using donor funds to pay out tens of thousands of dollars in settlement money to a political rival she bribed to keep out of her primary race.

In late June, Newman settled a breach of contract lawsuit with local activist Iymen Chehade, which stemmed from an employment agreement she signed that promised Chehade a six-figure job in her official office in exchange for his commitment not to run against her. Just two days after the settlement, Newman's campaign began paying Chehade a "salary" of roughly $10,000 a month, financial disclosures show. Those payments continued through late December, allowing Chehade to rake in more than $50,000 from the campaign.

Newman's settlement with Chehade came as the Democrat faced a congressional ethics investigation into her employment agreement with the activist. Under federal law, a candidate cannot promise a job "for the purpose of procuring political support." But Chehade signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement, making him unable to participate in the investigation. During the probe, Newman campaign manager Ben Hardin seemingly confirmed that Newman's settlement prompted the payments to Chehade, telling the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) that the activist "has a few deliverables as part of the settlement" but otherwise has "very minimal interaction" with the campaign.

Newman is already in hot water over the contract she signed with Chehade—congressional investigators say they have "substantial reason to believe" Newman illegally bribed the activist. The Democrat's ethics headaches, however, do not stop there. Newman's apparent decision to use donor money to cover Chehade's settlement "raises grave concerns about abuse of campaign funds," a new ethics complaint obtained by the Washington Free Beacon argues.

"In this case, Newman was the subject of a serious ethics investigation, and by settling the lawsuit with Chehade, she prevented him from testifying in the investigation and then contemporaneously began paying him salary from her campaign funds," the complaint, which was filed by the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), states. "Generally, a candidate and House member who is the subject of an ethics investigation should not be permitted to use her campaign funds to attempt to cover up a criminal or ethics investigation."

Newman's campaign, which did not return a request for comment, in December dismissed concerns about its payments to Chehade, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that it hired the activist as its "director of foreign policy and research." But the campaign publicly disparaged Chehade just months ago, arguing that Newman did not follow through on her promise to hire the activist in her official office because he "misrepresented his qualifications" and "was ill-suited for a senior role in a congressional office." During her September interview with the Office of Congressional Ethics, meanwhile, Newman described Chehade as "disrespectful" and "very hard to get along with."

The Newman campaign's defense of its payments to Chehade is also undermined by the activist's apparent lack of work for the congresswoman's reelection bid. According to FACT's complaint, the "salary" Newman paid Chehade "must be for 'bona fide services to a campaign' and not in excess of the fair market value." But when the Sun-Times asked the Newman campaign to provide examples of Chehade's work, the outlet received just 21 pages of foreign policy briefings Chehade wrote for Newman, amounting to nearly $2,500 per page. In addition, Chehade launched a congressional campaign of his own in December, casting doubt on his ability to work significant hours for Newman's campaign.

Despite those shortcomings, Chehade made nearly double Newman's second-highest paid staffer—political director Nick Uniejewski—from July to December of 2021. Chehade told the Sun-Times that his role on Newman's campaign will continue through this year, even as he manages the day-to-day of his own campaign.

"FACT's complaint … requests an investigation into Newman based on the OCE revealing that the payments to Chehade were related to the settlement, calling into question whether the campaign payments were actually a salary for fair-market services," FACT executive director Kendra Arnold told the Free Beacon.

As Newman awaits the outcome of the latest ethics complaint filed against her, the Democrat must simultaneously navigate an ongoing investigation into the original contract she offered Chehade.

While Newman denied that she promised Chehade employment to keep him from challenging her in a primary race, emails obtained by the OCE show that Chehade explicitly told Newman that he "agree[d] not to announce or submit his candidacy for election to Congressional Representative of the 3rd District of Illinois" in exchange for Newman's job offer. As a result, the ethics office concluded, Newman likely violated federal law by promising "federal employment to a primary opponent for the purpose of procuring federal support." The matter will now move to the House Committee on Ethics for further review.