Why Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration ended up giving millions of dollars to relatives of his Republican rival, Darren Bailey

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Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey regularly rails against government spending while accusing Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker of trying to solve the state’s problems merely by tossing money into “the four winds.”

“That’s all we ever hear for solutions in Illinois — more money, more spending,” Bailey said at a campaign appearance earlier this month. “That more money and more spending never comes with more accountability and more transparency. That’s all this man’s done, is continue to spend and waste taxpayers’ money.”

But absent from Bailey’s criticism is recognition that his father, mother and sister have benefited from two transactions over the last two decades worth more than $8 million in federal and state funds tied to a sprawling spread of property the trio owned in southern Illinois, including $4.32 million from, oddly enough, the Pritzker administration, according to records obtained by the Tribune.

In the little-noticed transaction in 2021, Pritzker’s Department of Natural Resources bought from the Baileys more than 2,290 acres of mostly wetland about 100 miles south of Urbana-Champaign. The land is slated to become a public recreation and hunting area, according to state officials and financial records.

Beyond the proceeds for selling the land, Bailey’s relatives also collected sizable federal government payments tied to most of that same property. They entered a contract to receive $3.74 million through a 2005 federal wetlands easement that required them to preserve the land as a natural habitat, according to local, state and federal records.

The two multimillion-dollar transactions provide the public with the latest example of the intersection between state Sen. Bailey’s family and funding from governments that Bailey often decries as being too big and undisciplined with spending. Bailey, a downstate farmer and lawmaker, and his relatives also have collected millions of dollars in COVID-related assistance and federal farming subsidies over the years for their farms and other businesses.

The Bailey family incomes are dwarfed by the billions of dollars amassed by entrepreneur and Hyatt Hotel heir Pritzker, a portion of which the Tribune previously found was held in several secret offshore shell companies.

But the revelations about the June 2021 state land deal and the federal easement funds provide a broader picture of the extended Bailey family finances.

Bailey last week released a portion of his federal income tax returns for the past five years. While the returns detail his income for those years, it does not account for the thousands of acres of downstate farmland that his business, Bailey Family Farm LLC, owns and farms or other assets. Pritzker has offered a similar glimpse of his massive financial wealth by releasing just the same initial pages of his personal income tax returns.

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said the agency found no records to indicate the lawmaker contacted administration officials about his relatives’ land deal. Although the sale of the land to the state didn’t benefit Darren Bailey directly, the purchase took place while he was minority spokesperson for the state Senate’s Agriculture Committee. Previously, as a state representative, Bailey served on House panels that dealt with farming, environmental and conservation issues.

Bailey declined to be interviewed for this story. In response to several questions from the Tribune about the state purchase of land owned by family members, a campaign spokesman said in an emailed statement that the senator had “nothing to do” with the state purchase “in any capacity.”

The statement also indicated the purchase didn’t conflict with Bailey’s stances as a candidate for governor. It noted Bailey’s plan to implement zero-based budgeting for state government is “just the requirement for the state agencies to justify their spending each year rather than getting automatic increases,” and that such a policy would not have an impact on the federal funds in a grant program such as the one the state used to buy the land.

“Darren has made his spending priorities clear,” the statement said. The GOP candidate for governor did not answer other written questions, including how he balances his philosophy that government spends too much with the state buying his family’s land.

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Still, the oddness of a sitting governor’s administration engaging in such a major deal with his campaign rival’s family is viewed as an unusual political juxtaposition, even among veteran state officials.

“This is a new one on me,” said Brent Manning, who was DNR director under Republican Govs. Jim Edgar and George Ryan. “I’ve never heard of this before.”

In addition to the transaction involving Bailey’s father, mother and sister, it also involved his uncle, Don Bailey, a broker who says he served as a “mediator” on the deal.

In an interview with the Tribune, Don Bailey also said his nephew “absolutely was not” involved in any part of the transaction, nor was he involved in any discussions with DNR officials.

“He was scared to death” to get close because of his state and political positions, Don Bailey said.

DNR’s land purchases generally come down to agency priorities and what land is available, but — like many issues in government — the final decisions about how to spend public dollars often spark criticism and raise questions about regional needs.

A Don Bailey flyer marketed the land as a “sportsman paradise” loaded with ducks, turkey, deer and other wildlife. And in a statement to the Tribune, the Illinois DNR said the property is a “beautiful piece of ground” that’s benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of restoration under the federal wetlands easement program, making it “essentially a turnkey site.”

But Jennifer Walling, executive director of the private Illinois Environmental Council, toured the site from several angles just before Labor Day and said it is clearly “not ready” for the public. She said she could not drive down one of the dirt roads leading to a main part of the site because there was a roughly foot-deep, water-filled pothole the length of several cars blocking her way. A sign stating the land was “private property” with a federal conservation easement was on the same post as another sign stating it represented a DNR “boundary.”

Walling said she would prefer to see the state develop a broader strategy to address and promote recreation, outdoor tourism and climate adaptation.

“I’m definitely disappointed that they’re prioritizing something like this” when places like Chicago and surrounding suburbs have a “really huge lack of natural areas,” said Walling, a veteran environmentalist who was unaware of the land purchase before the Tribune spoke with her. “There are zero state parks and natural areas that you can reach by public transit or by Amtrak successfully.”

Don Bailey had a different take about the public money spent on the site: “I get aggravated about some of the monies down here sometimes, but then I tell myself, ‘Well, they’re going to spend it. If it wasn’t spent here, it would be spent in Chicago.’”

DNR’s plans call for opening the site as the UKTN Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area in the fall of 2023, well past the Nov. 8 Pritzker-Bailey general election.

The story of how the Bailey trio cut deals worth more than $8 million with the federal and state governments dates back to 1998, when a good portion of the land was acquired by some of Sen. Bailey’s relatives from the Centralia Foundation, a group supporting that community’s activities and student scholarships, local records showed.

How much the Bailey family paid for the property that stretches across the northeast corner of Wayne County and the southwest corner of Richland County remains somewhat in dispute. Messages were left for the relatives of Darren Bailey but only Don Bailey responded.

Richland County records show a land transaction that cost the Baileys $533,600, and Wayne County tax stamps indicate a roughly $387,000 land sale, though it is unclear if there is any overlap in the total dollar amounts listed with the two counties.

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Centralia Foundation Chair William Sprehe, following a brief review of the nonprofit’s records, said the tally of the two figures together — roughly $920,000 — was “damn close” to the amount needed to help fund a teen recreation center in Centralia in the late 1990s, a move that followed the wishes of anonymous donors who gave the foundation a gift of land.

Don Bailey estimated the price likely would have been closer to $2.4 million and recalled family members dealing with a private landholder rather than the foundation. But he acknowledged a purchase could have been “quite possible” through the Centralia Foundation after the original owner donated the land to the group.

Either way, Sprehe said the recreational center could not have been built without the money it received from the Baileys and, while the Baileys “did well” in getting government funds, he doesn’t regret the foundation’s sale.

Officials said they became aware of the property as far back as 2000, when state conservation representatives were contacted while Republican George Ryan was governor. By 2005, the Baileys entered into an agreement for a permanent federal easement to preserve the habitat in exchange for $3.74 million, a move that would keep the easement in place when the state or any future owner would purchase the ground, records showed.

In 2007, DNR officials under Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich heard a pitch for a much bigger tract than what was eventually acquired, but state officials rejected the purchase due to funding constraints, records showed.

Under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, DNR officials said, the agency renewed its interest and called the property’s listing agent, who by then was Don Bailey, to confirm the land was still available.

“They called up one day,” Don Bailey said of DNR officials, “and said, ‘We’re ready to write the contract,’ and I said, ‘Well, OK.’ So we wrote the contract, and my brother accepted the terms. It took another year and a half to get the funding.”

Wayne Rosenthal, the DNR director under Rauner, said he did not think there was “anything political” surrounding the land sale, but that it was the No. 1 parcel the agency’s team of reviewers sought for that southeast area of the state, part of DNR’s “mission to provide opportunities for people to get in the outdoors.”

The Don Bailey flyer, pulled from DNR’s files, priced the ground at $2,100 an acre, but an appraiser later pegged it at $2,000, state records showed. A DNR technical reviewer called the amount “both credible and supportable,” but a spokeswoman said the final price was slightly less. Federal officials, given the U.S. government would pick up a third of the costs, reviewed the deal and signed off, as did the Illinois attorney general.

The state took out an option on the land in 2020 under the Pritzker administration, but the final purchase came four months after Sen. Bailey of Xenia declared he would join the race to defeat Pritzker.

To buy the property, the state used more than $3 million in federal funds and paid the rest with such proceeds as the sale of wildlife habit and migratory waterfowl stamps purchased by Illinois outdoorsmen, according to state officials.

The senator’s parents doubted the sale would go through, given that the governor is a Democrat, Don Bailey said, but he said DNR officials finally assured him they wanted the ground and had the money to buy it.

“Me and my brother both, the seller, thought there’s no way in God’s green earth that this is going to happen,” Don Bailey said. “I mean, we were shocked totally when it went ahead and closed.”

Don Bailey said his nephew also had doubts the sale would go through. He said he occasionally mentioned developments to his nephew, the senator, even though he steered clear of the deal.

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Don Bailey described how Sen. Bailey may have been somewhat torn over the balance between his family’s desires and his political life.

“He didn’t want it to happen — I mean, he wanted his dad to be able to do it, but … the timing of it, he really didn’t — truly, he would have been happier if it did not happen,” said Don Bailey, referring to his nephew’s life in politics. “I mean, it was OK with him that it did. But he would have been just as happy if it had not happened.”

When state DNR officials finalized the purchase last year, the overwhelming majority of the state’s payments — $4,041,066 — went to the senator’s parents, Bill L. and Norma Jean Bailey, along with an additional $118,934 for Bill Bailey individually for a separate piece of property, according to state records. The final $160,000 went to their daughter, Ann Nicole Bailey-Hout, comptroller records showed.

Illinois has a poor track record for setting aside wetlands, having lost 90% of the state’s original habitat and ranking low among states in preserving the settings that prevent flooding, reduce sedimentation in waterways and support wildlife.

It is with that backdrop that DNR officials maintained the land was an “acquisition priority” for at least two decades. An annual report the state submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the fall of 2021 described “shallow wetlands, emerging reforested areas and mature forest.”

The state explained in records to federal officials that the Bailey property purchase “uniquely meets all the criteria” of Illinois priorities in programs to bolster wetlands, wildlife, hunting and opportunities for viewing nature “on public land in areas where opportunities currently do not exist.”

Before the site opens, DNR said, the agency plans to construct parking lots on the land. All but one, roughly 60-acre tract falls under the federal easement, which remained intact when the state took over. The special wetland designation requires federal approval of an overall management plan before DNR said it can move forward.

The Bailey family is familiar with how to tap into federal programs, based on records kept by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose funders include the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation.

The senator’s parents have received about $5.6 million in federal farm subsidies from 1995 to mid-2020, and his sister, Ann Nicole Bailey-Hout, received more than $2.1 million, according to EWG’s data. Sen. Bailey and his wife, Cindy, collected more than $3.5 million in federal farm subsidies during the same period, EWG reported.

During the primary campaign, the Tribune reported that, on Feb. 26, 2021, Darren Bailey received one of his payments from the federal government’s coronavirus business relief Paycheck Protection Program under the Small Business Administration — $231,475 — to support 11 jobs on his family farm. Less than a month later, he reported a personal loan of $150,000 to his campaign, listing “Self-Employed (Bailey Family Farms)” as his employer on state campaign finance disclosures.

A database produced by investigative news agency ProPublica showed Bailey-related entities received hundreds of thousands of dollars more in federal aid, including PPP loans for a Christian school and coronavirus food assistance compensation for farmers that went to Bailey Family Farm.

As was the case with most PPP loans, the loans were forgiven.

Despite Sen. Bailey’s criticism of government handouts, “free stuff” and “socialism,” his campaign has defended Bailey Family Farm, saying it abided by the rules and took part in federal programs just like other businesses in Illinois.

“I, to this day, am proud that I was involved with it, proud that it came through,” said Don Bailey of the land sale. “But I’m still a little amazed that it did happen and it did … revive my belief in mankind and in politicians that some things that are right do happen.”

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Twitter @RayLong

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