Illinois Policy Institute's tax-exempt status should raise IRS red flags

Chicago, Illinois, June 26, 2013 - On Tuesday, the Illinois Policy Institute hosted a symposium on "digital learning" at the Union League Club in Chicago.  Unfortunately, an Illinois Policy Institute symposium is never just a "symposium."

This "symposium" comes right on the heels of a nasty defeat for Illinois Policy Institute staffers involved in the Illinois Virtual Charter School plan. The Illinois Policy Institute aggressively opposed the legislation, HB 494, that has now successfully placed a one-year moratorium on virtual charter schools, as did its sister 501(c)(4) organization, the Illinois Opportunity Project.

The legislation foiled the plans of Illinois Policy Institute's Vice President of Policy, Ted Dabrowski, now the President of Virtual Learning Solutions (VLS), the entity which was to govern the virtual charter school for 18 suburban school districts and control the more than $16 million in Illinois tax dollars the group projected by year five.

Education reform is big business and Tillman & Co. understand there are millions in tax dollars up-for-grabs. VLS' partner company, K12, Inc., has made a fortune nationally with its virtual charter schools despite the avalanche of criticism over its poor student track record, high drop-out rate, scandals, and the millions and millions it spends on lobbying, advertising, and in executive compensation.

Eric Kohn, the husband of another Illinois Policy Institute staffer, is the treasurer of the Virtual Learning Solutions. Kohn is deeply involved with Illinois Policy Institute-connected political action committees and has had no-bid contracts with Cicero president Larry Dominick and Morton district 201 president Jeff Pesek as operations manager of Dan Proft's Urquhart Media. Read more about Kohn's background here.

Since the controversy began, John Tillman of the Illinois Policy Institute has denied that his staff has a "financial interest" in the Illinois Virtual Charter School plan. But how Tillman defines "financial interest" is the issue.

Tuesday's "digital learning" symposium, too, had a political bent to it.

One of the symposium's partners was a new organization called Freedom to Learn. Tillman associate Dan Proft and John Buck, a major contributor to Rahm Emanuel and other top Democrats, are among the five board members for the group. Buck was also one of two primary donors ($100,000 each) who funded Proft's Liberty Principles PAC to support Tillman-Proft political candidates last fall.

But there may be much more going on here than the pooling of potential political donors.

Last year, according to the head of a conservative group who asked not to be named, Proft made an aggressive move to take-over the organization. He told them that a donor had offered him $500,000 if he was successful in "farming the group's lists" for volunteers and donors. Angry threats ensued and the apparent "take-over", if that is what it was supposed to be, never happened.

List farming, eh?

In a separate incident, Proft and Kohn were, apparently, also relieved from their positions at Operation Homefront Illinois, a veterans' charity. Back in February, a representative from the group told me there were "financial discrepancies" in the Illinois office, managed by Proft, so the national group decided to centralize fundraising operations and install a new Illinois director.

A follow-up email was sent and replied to in order to confirm the conversation.

Capitol Fax also contacted the group regarding the issue of "financial discrepancies" and, unfortunately, put the group on the defensive.

"I'm told there may have been "discrepancies or mismanagement" at Illinois' Operation Home Front's office.  Can you elaborate?" asked Capitol Fax via email.

"I don't know of any mismanagement or discrepancies.  We [Operation Homefront] simply had a change in structure from a Chapter model to a Field Office model and the staff from the Chapter did not remain with the organization in the new Field Office model," a representative stated in a guarded email reply.

But the fact that Operation Homefront felt they needed to take steps to regain control over their local operations says something about what really happened here. If any of this is true, it also raises some serious questions about list farming and the way John Tillman, Dan Proft, and their partners operate.

The Illinois Policy Institute has a history of playing both sides of the political fence; funding-wise, they are in bed with the entrenched political establishment - even top donors and advisers to Mayor Rahm Emanuel - and yet control several Tea Party and conservative organizations.

In the end, all roads lead back to the Illinois Policy Institute. In 2012, Tillman-Proft-connected political action committees and the Illinois Opportunity Project, which also pays Proft as a consultant and funds his gubernatorial committee, targeted conservative and Tea Party candidates for defeat during the primaries.

Other media have also commented on the confusing nature of John Tillman's many political 'hats.'

The Illinois Policy Institute continues to act less and less like a charitable tax-exempt foundation and more like an aggressive political committee. Perhaps this is one "conservative" group the IRS should actually investigate.

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If Illinois Policy Institute would like to respond to this story, please feel free to contact the author directly.

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