Willie Wilson, a popular Christian philanthropist and mayoral candidate in Chicago, insisted Sunday that he wasn't trying to buy votes when he doled out what his camp says was about $300,000 in cash and checks to churchgoers at New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church.
"My wife and I have been blessed by God to be able to get a few of the material things out of life, and so it's up to us to now continually to share back with all of you all and others," Wilson told church members as he shared his financial blessing with them, according to WGN9.
The millionaire businessman who owns a medical supply company gave out the cash the same day Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner also spoke at the church.
Critics have since accused Wilson of buying votes, but elections officials said they didn't see a violation of Illinois election law, which prohibits the buying of votes, according to a Chicago Tribune op-ed by Kristen McQueary. After highlighting how politicians have warmed voters in the past, she argued that even though there is no evidence that any laws were broken, Wilson's intention behind the money giveaway was clear.
"While watching video of the Sunday event — after lifting my jaw off the living room floor — I almost longed for the conventional ways of vote-buying. Build an unnecessary infrastructure project in my ward. Cut a ribbon at a new park the city can't afford. Send me a tax rebate. Hire my sister for a ghost-payroll job," she wrote. "Frankly, Sunday's hand-to-hand distribution of money was just too unsavory. I prefer tradition."
Wilson, who also launched "Singsation," the first nationally syndicated gospel entertainment show in America in 1989, called his actions at the church on Sunday "one of the biggest property tax relief assistance" events of the year while noting he was no stranger to philanthropy.
An aide to the businessman told WGN9 that Wilson gave away $300,000 to 2,000 people through the Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation, a nonprofit. Wilson says he organized the giveaway to assist homeowners who are struggling to pay their property tax bills.
Rauner, who's facing a tough battle for a second term this fall, railed against high property taxes in his speech to the churchgoers.
"You pay the highest property taxes in America here in Chicago and the South Side and the south suburbs," Rauner said Sunday, according to WGN9. "This is wrong. The system is broken and I'm trying to fix it."
He told The Associated Press on Monday that he learned "after the fact" that Wilson distributed money at the church Sunday morning and was "pretty upset" about it.
"I think the idea of handing out cash if you're a candidate for office is outrageous," he said. "It should not happen."
Wilson is a self-made millionaire who mopped floors for a living before working his way up to become the owner of several McDonald's franchises where be made his wealth.
A 2016 profile of Wilson in The Wall Street Journal said he was sitting in church thinking, how generous God had been one day in 1988 when the choir started singing, "What Shall I Render Unto the Lord?"
He was moved to tears and decided that day his life needed a more "spiritual outlet." He went on to dedicate his life to promoting gospel music even though he doesn't sing very well.
At Christ Temple Baptist Church, his pastor, the Rev. Princeton McKinley, nonetheless let him sing to the congregation sometimes and he would usually tell them to: "Listen to the words, not how it sounds."