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Claims of ‘inappropriate behavior’ in Waukegan mayoral race sent to state’s attorney

Ald. Sam Cunningham, 1st, is congratulated by Waukegan resident Pamela Woods on Wednesday, April 5, after his victory the day before in the city’s mayoral election. (Yadira Sanchez Olson / Lake County News-Sun)

The Lake County Clerk’s Office and the Waukegan Police Department have forwarded election-related complaints and information about Mayor-elect Sam Cunningham’s campaign to State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim, although the county’s top prosecutor declined to say whether his office was investigating.

Cunningham told the News-Sun on Thursday that he met with Waukegan Police Chief Wayne Walles to tell him about rumors he’d heard regarding his own campaign. He said he could not remember when he heard them, but forcefully denied any role in the activity described in the rumors, which have circulated around the city and claim that his supporters were offering residents food or cigarettes in return for votes.

Cunningham, the 1st-Ward alderman since 1999, edged independent candidate Lisa May, the 7th-Ward alderman, in the April 4 consolidated election and is scheduled to be sworn in on Monday. He had previously defeated incumbent Mayor Wayne Motley in the Feb. 28 Democratic primary.

In an initial interview with the News-Sun this week, Cunningham said he never spoke to law enforcement officials about the election rumors.

"Who thinks of this stuff?" Cunningham said Wednesday. "I haven’t even heard of no mess like that."

In that interview, Cunningham denied any involvement with any of the activities described in the rumors.

"Nothing came from my camp with that, instructions from me about anything," Cunningham said. "Never. It was never talked about. It was never encouraged."

In a subsequent interview on Thursday, however, Cunningham recalled that he had talked to Walles about the rumors. He said he didn’t remember when the conversation took place.

"My attorney said he had heard it (the rumors)," Cunningham said Thursday. "So he had called me and said, ‘Hey, you need to call, why don’t you call the chief and see what can happen under those kind of situations,’ if I made a report? My position was, there’s no need for us to make a report, because I hadn’t heard it (the rumors)."

The chief told Cunningham that the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office handles such election-related matters, Cunningham said, adding that he never made an official police report.

"That’s where I left it," Cunningham said Thursday.

Waukegan Police Cmdr. Joe Florip confirmed that Cunningham met with the department about the election.

"No police report was taken at the time Ald. Cunningham brought it to the attention of the police department that he had heard rumors, and the police department notified the state’s attorney’s office," Florip said.

Florip added that he couldn’t "specifically say what the rumor was about, but there was some kind of voting issue," adding that the matter occurred around the time of early voting.

Lake County Clerk Carla Wyckoff said Thursday that her office had received some comments about the Cunningham campaign.

"We received some comments about potential inappropriate behavior from some election judges and a couple members of the public," Wyckoff said. "We passed it along."

Wyckoff declined to comment further.

Nerheim said Thursday that he had received the information from the clerk’s office, but declined to elaborate.

Waukegan resident John Howlett, 50, of Cheyenne Road, told the News-Sun during early voting for the April 4 election that he was approached by a woman who offered to give him cigarettes and buy him breakfast if he voted for Cunningham. Howlett, who said he is disabled, said he was coming out of Vista Medical Center East hospital when the woman, whom he said appeared to be in her late 50s, pulled up in a vehicle.

"She gave me almost 10 cigarettes," Howlett said, adding that he declined the offer for breakfast because he wasn’t hungry.

The woman never said she worked for Cunningham, Howlett said, but she made it clear that if he voted "for who she wanted, she would do this, and that’s why she took me to go vote."

Howlett said he accepted the cigarettes and voted for May, but told the woman he voted for Cunningham. The woman wanted Howlett to show her a receipt to prove he voted, Howlett said, and asked Howlett if he knew anyone else who might be interested in the deal.

Howlett said he never reported the matter to Lake County election officials but did report it to May’s campaign.

May confirmed that Howlett walked into her office and told her about it.

"I didn’t know him prior to that day whatsoever," May said. But she added that she heard from three people who she said work at the Lake County Building who told her they "were concerned about voting practices" and that they "observed activity that they found to be questionable."

May said the reported questionable behavior wasn’t by anyone known to be a supporter of, or worker for, Cunningham’s campaign.

"A lot of people were asking for receipts that they voted, which is an unusual practice," May said, citing conversations she had with her poll-watchers. "That was one of the irregular activities."

But May added that she has "moved on." She said her campaign never officially complained about Cunningham’s campaign to election officials.

"I’m not thinking about the election," May said.

Cunningham won the race by 303 votes out of more than 9,100 ballots cast, taking 51.7 percent of the overall tally. He will become the city’s first black mayor when he is sworn in Monday. Had May won, she would have been Waukegan’s first female mayor. It was Cunningham’s first successful run for mayor after three previous tries.

On Wednesday, Cunningham said he wondered if the rumors came from people who supported his opponent. He also said that during the campaign, he heard racially-tinged rumors spreading that he would "bring the ‘hood to City Hall" if he won.

"You can’t accept the fact that a guy who lost three times finally came out and did something that was successful," Cunningham said.

He added that he hadn’t heard anything from the state’s attorney’s office about the matter.

"Can I get some credit that we just worked hard?" Cunningham asked Wednesday, calling the rumors "frustrating" and saying he knocked on doors for multiple hours each day. "You know how hard it is to cheat in an election today? In today’s times? It just isn’t worth it."

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