SPRINGFIELD — — As he campaigns to be Illinois' next governor, billionaire businessman Bruce Rauner of Winnetka cannot shake questions about his daughter's admission to an elite Chicago public school where he later made a hefty donation — a sensitive issue in a state with a history of political clout and scandal.
On the campaign trail, Rauner's GOP primary opponents have characterized the school admittance as an example of him using his influence and getting special treatment for family. But Rauner, a longtime school reform advocate who has given millions to Chicago schools, rejects those claims, saying his family didn't ask for a special favor and followed administrative procedure to get his daughter admitted. The venture capitalist portrays himself as a political outsider who'll fight against such special interests.
Yet the issue arose again this week when Rauner changed his story on his personal involvement — namely on whether he had spoken about his daughter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who was then Chicago Public Schools CEO. At a candidate forum in Springfield with Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, Rauner said he didn't remember the details of conversations with Duncan and apologized to a reporter for misleading him on the question.
Here's a breakdown of the known facts:
One of Rauner's six children initially was rejected in 2008 by Chicago's prestigious Walter Payton College Prep. Rauner says his family appealed on her behalf through a principals' discretionary process, something he says other parents do routinely. The daughter, now in college, had straight A's and top-notch test scores but missed school due to illness and had a marred attendance record, he says. She later gained admission for that year. CPS policy says that principals of selective high schools can use discretion for up to 5 percent of incoming freshmen.
Rauner's involvement with the admissions process through the appeals list was first reported by the Chicago Tribune in 2010.
In December 2009, the Rauner Family Foundation gave a $250,000 donation to Payton Prep Initiative for Education, which the Sun-Times first reported in January and Rauner's campaign later confirmed. The initiative raises money for the school with a parent-run organization.
Students must have a Chicago address if they want to enroll in CPS schools. Rauner, a director at the Chicago Public Education Fund, lives in Winnetka but bought property in Chicago in August 2008. His campaign says the family had planned to move to Chicago earlier.
The donation came more than a year after the daughter's enrollment, which Rauner has pointed out. Rauner's spokesman Mike Schrimpf told The Associated Press that the contribution "had absolutely nothing to do with her admission."
THE EDUCATION SECRETARY:
Rauner has changed his stance on whether he talked with Duncan about the admission of his daughter. When asked in September 2013 by the (Springfield) State Journal-Register if he talked to Duncan about the admission, he said: "I did not."
However, months later he told Chicago news outlets, including WBBM-TV, that he had talked to Duncan.
"There's nothing to apologize for that. There's nothing wrong with it. I would do it again and again," he told the station.
On Tuesday evening — during a candidate debate in Springfield — he went back over his answer to a columnist from the State Journal-Register.
"I apologize. I may have misunderstood your question," he said. "Arne Duncan and I would talk regularly, because I'm very involved and have been for 25 years in school reform in Chicago ... Frankly, my wife and I, we have some disagreement about who talked to who when. I don't really recall. I talked to Arne all the time. I don't really recall talking to him about this much."
Rauner's spokesman told the AP on Thursday that Rauner spoke to Duncan only about the "process for the discretionary pool."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department declined to comment Thursday.
With Rauner by far out fundraising the other Republican candidates and blanketing the airwaves with ads, his Republican rivals and Gov. Pat Quinn, who's seeking re-election, have zeroed in on the image of Rauner using his money to buy influence.
Quinn has referred to Rauner — without using his name — as a "big talker" with "big money" who doesn't have a proven record. It is Rauner's first time running for public office.
Dillard and Brady have brought up the school issue.
"I worry . what Chicago child was not let into Walter Payton High School that had that advantage that Bruce Rauner's daughter or anybody else's daughter might have after going to such a great high school," Dillard said last month. "I'd like to know who didn't get in because his suburban daughter got in."
Rauner has rebutted the claims by saying he's under attack because he's a leading candidate and his daughter earned her admission.
"The reality is that neither my wife nor I asked for special favors," he said Tuesday.