By Josh Lederman, Priscilla Thompson and Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is cutting ties with a former Chicago city attorney who has bundled for his campaign and was planning a fundraiser for him after being criticized over the donor's role in trying to block the release of the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting.
The donor, Steve Patton, ran former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's law department and fought the release of the video showing the fatal shooting of McDonald, a black teenager, by a police officer in a case that attracted national attention over race and policing.
Patton had maxed out to Buttigieg's campaign, "bundled" donations from others and was a co-host for a Chicago fundraiser scheduled for Friday, which the Buttigieg campaign said was no longer the case.
"Transparency and justice for Laquan McDonald is more important than a campaign contribution," spokesman Chris Meagher said in a statement. "We are returning the money he contributed to the campaign and the money he has collected. He is no longer a co-host for the event and will not be attending."
The move comes after The Associated Press reported on the fundraiser Friday morning and Buttigieg faced fierce online backlash.
Buttigieg's campaign had previously declined to comment on Patton's involvement in the fundraiser. The candidate, asked about the controversy during an appearance Friday at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, said Patton’s involvement in one of his fundraisers should never have happened.
“I learned about it this morning, and within an hour of that, he was no longer involved,” Buttigieg said.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
For months, Buttigieg has faced criticism over his handling of the race as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with a history of segregation where decades of simmering tension erupted this summer when a white police officer shot and killed an African American man. Despite Buttigieg's promises to "do better," the fundraiser demonstrates his sometimes awkward efforts to improve his standing in the black community, which is a crucial segment of the Democratic electorate.
"He should adjust his schedule," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, when asked about the fundraiser.
The Chicago civil rights icon, whose guidance Buttigieg sought amid the unrest over the South Bend police shooting, said he has a high opinion of the White House hopeful and is "assuming he doesn't" know about Patton's ties to the McDonald case. But, he added, Buttigieg "should be made aware."
Even before the South Bend shooting this summer, Buttigieg has struggled to address his record on race as mayor. Critics, including many residents, have blasted him for firing the city's first black police chief shortly after taking office, for prioritizing South Bend's downtown over its neighborhoods and for issues of housing, crime and inequality.
Patton did not respond to multiple requests for comment and his role in raising money for Buttigieg is unclear. He gave a maximum $5,600 donation in June. But Buttigieg's campaign did not address a list of questions from the AP, including whether Patton's inclusion on the fundraiser meant he tapped into his own personal network to "bundle" contributions from others.
McDonald's death in October 2014, as well as efforts by police to cover up the incident, roiled the city as attention to the case grew.
Police said at the time that McDonald was armed with a knife and "lunged" at officers. But the video, which was released over a year later after a judge's order, showed the teenager veering away when officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots at him. The knife he had was a pocket knife.
Patton faced criticism over his handling of the matter. He advised against releasing the video until after an investigation was concluded — and after Emanuel survived a contentious mayoral runoff re-election. And emails released by the city show he was directly involved in managing the fallout as media interest grew and coordinated statements with the city's purportedly independent police oversight board.
One of Patton's top deputies attempted to get McDonald's family to agree to not release the footage during settlement talks, which the city entered into without the family filing suit. Patton also played a role in negotiating a $5 million settlement that was far less than what McDonald's family asked for.
The law department he oversaw was found to have withheld evidence during discovery in more than a half-dozen police misconduct cases.
Activists say the fundraiser is Buttigieg's latest misstep. Over the summer, he held a fundraiser in Chicago's historically black Bronzeville neighborhood at a center named for Harold Washington, its first black mayor, which drew a mostly white audience.
"The worst case scenario is his people know and they just don't care, or they don't know and haven't vetted him thoroughly," said Charlene Carruthers, former head of the Black Lives Matter group BYP100, which was instrumental in pushing for police reforms in the wake of the McDonald case.
"If they do know, it's indicative of so much of what we see with folks in the LGBTQ community — particularly white men who may hold a sexual identity, but their politics don't line up with the liberation of the people who are also in community with them."
Josh Lederman is a national political reporter for NBC News.
Priscilla Thompson is a 2020 campaign embed for NBC News.