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Five days before election, Johnson takes heat for unpaid water bills while Vallas faces questions about donations

Brandon Johnson takes heat over unpaid water bills, Paul Vallas questioned about donations
Brandon Johnson takes heat over unpaid water bills, Paul Vallas questioned about donations 03:20

CHICAGO (CBS) -- There are five days to go until Chicago voters pick a new mayor – and money was on the minds of both candidates Thursday night.

Brandon Johnson owes thousands of dollars to the city in unpaid water bills, while Paul Vallas is facing questions about a donation to his campaign.

As CBS 2's Jermont Terry reported, both candidates faced questions Thursday night that they would prefer not to answer this close to the election.

Johnson was all smiles at the Credit 1 Arena at the University of Illinois Chicago, as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) came to Chicago to stump for him.

"This is going to be a close election, and the deciding factor will be voter turnout," Sanders said at the rally. "Brandon's opponent and the other side – they have a lot of money. That's what always happens when you take on the establishment. They have the money. They've got a lot of power. But you know what we have? We have the people."

But while Johnson felt the love at the rally at UIC, he was not happy to talk about his outstanding debt to the city. According to city records, Johnson owes more than $3,000 for unpaid water and sewage charges and fees.

Capitol Fax was first to report Johnson owes $3,357.04 in unpaid charges after almost eight months of not paying the city.

He finally did pay on Feb. 13, 2023 - but only $91.08. City records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request confirm Johnson's debt, and that he has entered into a payment plan, but details of that payment plan were not provided.

Terry also caught up with Johnson late Thursday before a WBEZ-Chicago Sun-Times mayoral candidate forum with Vallas at the University of Chicago's Logan Center.

Terry noted that for years, CBS 2 has been reporting on people who have been socked with bad water bills as part of our Getting Hosed series, and people who have been unable to pay their  bills. He asked Johnson if the unpaid bills represented an oversight, or a bill that just got out of hand.

"We're on a payment plan, just like a lot of families in the city of Chicago," Johnson said.

Terry: "To that person who might say. 'Hey, if you haven't paid this bill, how can you oversee a city like Chicago when it comes to billions and millions of dollars?'"

Johnson: "I've managed multimillion-dollar budgets as a Cook County commissioner. We pay our card note. We pay our mortgage. We pay for school supplies, and we're on a payment plan."

Terry: "Will you pay in full?"

Johnson: "Of course."

Johnson then headed into the WBEZ mayoral forum, where he went on the attack. He accused Vallas of accepting campaign contributions from Betsy DeVos, the former Secretary of Education under President Donald Trump. DeVos supports privatizing public schools.

The question came up when moderator Sasha Ann-Simons asked for the candidates' reaction to former President Donald Trump's indictment in Manhattan on Thursday.

Johnson characterized the Trump administration as "one of the most corrupt," and one where "every single person that he appointed as a cabinet member did not believe in the work that they were assigned to oversee - one of which was Betsy DeVos. We're talking about an individual who does not believe in public education."

He went on to say, "Betsy DeVos has inserted herself and her resources into my opponent's coffers."

Johnson also brought up comments by Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara – including one in which Catanzara said there would be "blood in the streets" if Johnson is elected. The FOP has endorsed Vallas.

"This Trumpian-style politics that has inserted himself into this campaign is quite disturbing, and these ideas, of course, are surrounding my opponent," Johnson said.

"I've never had any conversations or contacts with Betsy DeVos. Our campaign has not received any money from her," Vallas fired back, "and so at the end of the day, I don't quite know what he's talking about."

As to the Trump indictment, Vallas called it "evidence that no one is above the law - even the president of the United States. I can't say that it was not expected, and I think there's going to be more indictments coming down the road."

At the WBEZ forum Vallas and Johnson went on to discuss funding for the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Police Department. This was the final square-up for Vallas and Johnson of any kind before the election Tuesday.

Vallas ended his night in Bridgeport with supporters. He grabbed a beer at Cork & Kerry at the Park, 3259 S. Princeton Ave. and watched the White Sox play their first game of the season in Houston.

At the debate at CBS 2 on Tuesday, Vallas said he would give amnesty to Chicagoans with outstanding water bills. Terry asked Vallas if his opponent Johnson's water bill debt should be forgiven too.

"No. I don't think he would be eligible for amnesty under my water bill amnesty program," Vallas said.

Johnson's campaign said all debts would be fully resolved before he would take office, while Vallas doubled down in saying he has not received a single dime from DeVos.

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