Booze, beads and art among unclaimed gifts lavished upon billionaire Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker

Oct 14, 2023, 9:58 PM

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has so many fans and friends that he receives a $30 gift at the rate of one every three days, but because of his job he accepts none of them, and rarely even sees them.

The second-term Democratic governor and multi-billionaire has been lavished with hundreds of gifts from around the world, ranging from a $950 bottle of Japanese whiskey to 35 cents: a quarter and dime, to be exact.

The state’s 25-year-old Gift Ban Act prohibits public employees such as Pritzker from accepting presents, with broad exceptions. Therefore, the high-priced hooch delivered compliments of the Japanese embassy and three bottles of tequila valued at $450 have remained untapped.

“I don’t get to do that,” Pritzker said at a stop in Springfield. “I will say I like tequila, so that’s why people will have given that to me, but there are a few other spirits that I like as well.”

Pricey bottles of alcohol are not the only gifts that Pritzker eschews. Most are stored in Springfield and Chicago, with a staff member responsible for thank-you notes. Together, they comprise 4 1/2 years of gratuities totaling 561 gifts valued at $16,890.14, according to a log provided to The Associated Press in response to a public records request.

Perishable food is shared with office staff and visitors. The rest will eventually end up in an appropriate charitable home, gubernatorial spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said.

A governor receives gifts for reasons you’d expect: A gift bag when he visits a town or cuts a ribbon, a plaque from an advocacy group when he champions its cause. Promotion also plays a part. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has sent king cake and beads to gin up interest in Mardi Gras, while authors seem to believe getting a copy of their latest work into Pritzker’s hands will land it on the bestseller list.

With a net worth of $3.5 billion as a Hyatt Hotel heir, Pritzker is not pining for much. But for those government employees who aren’t among the nation’s 326 richest people, according to Forbes magazine, the law prohibits accepting gifts from those who do or seek business with the state, who perform state-regulated activities and lobbyists.

Acceptable presents from one source must not exceed $100 in a single year and no one may accept food or refreshments valued at more than $75 in a single day.

Initiated in 1998 by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, co-authored by then-first-term state Sen. Barack Obama and signed by Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, the Gift Ban Act was the first major ethics reform in Illinois since post-Watergate campaign-finance disclosure laws.

“It’s worked pretty well,” said David Melton of the advocacy group Reform for Illinois. “As a general rule, they (public employees) are not allowed to accept gifts. That’s the right approach.”

Based on value alone, Pritzker could accept the overwhelming majority of his gubernatorial gift pile. Each present, arriving at a rate of just under 10 a month, averages about $30.

Beside the four bottles of luxurious liquor, there are only six gifts that are generally off limits, including a $200 Mondaine watch from the Swiss ambassador to the U.S. and a $120 potpourri of eco-friendly pet waste bags, biodegradable diaper bags, bamboo utensils and more from a citizen named Tiffany Kuhl.

The COVID-19 crisis imbued the governor’s admirers with generosity. From March 2020 through December 2021, Pritzker received 33 gifts specifically in appreciation of his pandemic protocol, including some that seemed more personal: handmade face-coverings, items with inspirational messages, selections of food and a Gov. Pritzker bobblehead from the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee.

There also was “2:30 p.m. Man,” a painting of a smiling Pritzker in acrylic by SeungRi “Victoria” Park, a Chicago schoolteacher and artist.

“Every day at 2:30, he showed up on my TV,” said Park, referring to Pritzker’s daily news conferences during the worst of the pandemic. “I don’t vote for any politicians, but I like him. I wanted to paint him. He reminded me of Buddha.”

Pritzker, the state’s third Jewish governor, was not a spiritual leader to Park, but his message resonated.

“I don’t go with religion and I don’t go with politicians,” said Park, who has remained free of COVID-19 in the 3 1/2 years since the coronavirus crept into Illinois. “But I go with science.”

As for the Governor’s Gifts scorecard? Shirts: 54. Hats: 21. Mugs and totes: 23. Scarves: seven, including three maroon and gold Loyola University wraps. Pens and pencils: 8. Pins: 11 (plus one rolling pin).

There were 188 books, 27 from the authors themselves, including former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres. He is listed as sending a signed copy of his autobiography, though he died two years before Pritzker’s election. Sidney Blumenthal, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, sent his latest Abraham Lincoln biography, along with tequila and a stuffed pink flamingo. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and his co-author, Mark Green, each sent a copy of “Wrecking America,” a critique of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Sometimes gifts come wrapped in the wrong potato chip bag, like when Pritzker stopped at a Freeport elementary school on June 6 and received from the Stephenson County Democratic Party two bags of Mrs. Fishers potato chips made in nearby Rockford, instead of the equally salty Mrs. Mike’s potato chips manufactured in Freeport.

Party chairperson Jody Coss cannot say for certain whether she grabbed the Freeport snack when she decided to add some hometown flavor to the governor’s greeting.

“The intention,” Coss said sheepishly, “was to give him Mrs. Mike’s.”


Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed.

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Booze, beads and art among unclaimed gifts lavished upon billionaire Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker