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Dollarocracy: Pay-to-play culture still has a chokehold on Illinois politics

A decade after that report, political money is still making us look bad, and there's no question that fundraising demands and practices are keeping good people from entering the political arena. That weakens and taints Illinois.

Columnist Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatchsuggested that the University of Illinois change its sports teams' name to the Fighting Corrupt Politicians "because of the state's colorful history in that regard."

Funny, but not quite fair. Most Illinois officials strive to be honest and careful with taxpayers' money. On the other hand, the state's political culture and wide-open campaign finance system have led to the convictions of at least 75 people, including former Gov. George Ryan and his former chief of staff Scott Fawell, who oversaw an office that traded commercial driver's licenses for bribes when Ryan was secretary of state.

In Illinois' pay-to-play culture, businesses and the public too often assume that the only way to obtain a state contract is by greasing palms. That has devastating consequences because it discourages many good vendors who can offer superior services at a fair price from bidding. And it makes the public question the legitimacy of all state contractors.

Last fall, Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District who won the Ryan conviction, described Illinois' system as an illegal "pay-to-play scheme on steroids" when he indicted Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a major fundraiser for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Ryan's successor. That 24-count indictment accuses Rezko of pursuing nearly $6 million in kickbacks from people wanting to do business with the state and attempting to wrestle $1.5 million from a Hollywood producer to be used as campaign contributions to Blagojevich. 

In October, Stuart Levine, a former appointee to the Teachers' Retirement System Board and the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, pleaded guilty to scheming in 2003 and 2004 to extract hefty payments for individuals and political campaigns from companies seeking to handle lucrative state investments. His plea agreement rehashed many of the details in the indictment of Rezko, who Levine said was a partner in his schemes. Rezko's case is winding through the courts while prosecutor Fitzgerald continues an aggressive investigation of state government.

Despite all the scandals, Illinois has taken only modest action in the past 10 years to address the central role of money in state politics. In 1996, we gave a presentation in Quincy about the uses and abuses of campaign funds in Illinois as part of the Illinois Campaign Finance Project, sponsored by Illinois Issues. We provided details about how Quincy-area and other Illinois elected officials raised and spent political money. The next day, the local newspaper reported on our big-picture denunciation of Illinois' wide-open campaign finance system, but ignored the information on how much local businesses had given to local legislators. Though nothing was illegal or improper about those contributions, it must have seemed embarrassing to the small-city paper to link local businesses and local officials with something as intimate as money.

Today, that has changed. The media scrutinize political money more aggressively. Stories about scandals keep pay-to-play restrictions and contribution limits on the radar screen in Springfield. Reform, which usually comes in increments, often occurs more quickly in response to scandals. 

The question is whether the legislature is finally ready to address such issues as restrictions on the pay-to-play culture that accepts there is a trade-off between giving campaign contributions and getting state contracts. Regulating that practice, combined with placing limits on contributions, would fundamentally alter Illinois' way of doing business.

This spring, three reform measures were approved by legislative committees much earlier than ordinarily happens. House Bill 1, for instance, would curtail pay-to-play practices. It would prohibit anyone who has state contracts with an annual value of more than $25,000 from making political contributions to the constitutional officer who awards the contracts. It also requires bidders on state contracts to report any political contributions to the constitutional officer responsible for awarding the contract. Rep. John Fritchey, a Democrat from Chicago, is sponsoring the measure, which has more than 30 co-sponsors.

Another measure would give the secretary of state's inspector general new authority to investigate violations of the Lobbyist Registration Act. Adding an enforcement provision would demonstrate the state's commitment to strictly regulate lobbyist activities and would make clear to the few unethical lobbyists that their transgressions will be treated seriously.

A third measure would create a voluntary program of public financing of judicial campaigns for the Illinois Supreme Court and appellate courts. This would alter the new reality of judicial campaigns where the candidate is often viewed as a wholly owned subsidiary of special interests. It would provide judicial candidates the resources to speak about their credentials, temperament and experience without having to put themselves in a position where they appear to commit to interests who may have cases coming before the court. Most important, judicial public financing will provide the public with the reassurance that Illinois' courts are not for sale.

Among those leading reform efforts is Comptroller Dan Hynes. In February 2005, Hynes was the first Illinois constitutional officer to issue an executive order saying he would not accept campaign contributions from people doing more than $10,000 in business with his office. New state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias became the second when he issued his own executive order prohibiting campaign contributions from banks and contracts for his contributors.

Hynes traveled the state rather quietly two years ago with a compelling message for one newspaper editorial board after another: Too many people believe they can't get business with the state of Illinois unless they make hefty campaign contributions. He said this pay-to-play custom is a reality, and it should be stopped. He has emerged as the most persistent, highest-ranking Illinois advocate of ending this culture in Illinois government.

Although reforms have been slow in coming, the current flurry of activity is part of an effort that stretches over a decade. First came the State Gift Ban Act of 1998, then the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act of 2003. The Gift Ban Act restricted gifts to elected officials and banned the use of campaign funds for personal use. The Ethics Act not only eliminated some highly publicized exemptions allowed in the Gift Ban Act but also required ethics training for all state employees and required each constitutional officer to appoint an executive inspector general to review complaints of wrongdoing. 

However, untouched in those major laws of 1998 and 2003 were contribution limits and pay-to-play. While the bill restricting state contractors from making campaign contributions is advancing through the Illinois House this year, Chicago Democratic Rep. Harry Osterman's contribution limits bill remains in committee. That measure would limit individuals to $1,500 in contributions to legislative candidates and $3,000 to statewide candidates. It also would cap the contributions of corporations, unions and associations at $5,000. Like contribution limit proposals of recent years, it may never be released for a vote.

Yet it appears the public is paying more attention. Ryan's indictment and conviction on charges of political corruption helped to broaden the public debate from campaign finance issues to political ethics in general. A poll by Belden, Russonello & Stewart last October indicated that 73 percent of Illinois residents believe that "unless we limit the influence of money in government, elected officials will not be able to keep their promises on issues that are important to people like me." 

That view is virtually unchanged from a survey the Illinois Campaign Finance Project conducted in the mid-1990s. "Illinois is seriously ill, suffering from overexposure to political money," the final report, Tainted Democracy, concluded in 1997. "The illness may not be fatal, but it is debilitating and disfiguring. It makes us weak, and it makes us look bad."

The project's task force, co-chaired by former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon and former Gov. William Stratton, recommended 19 changes in Illinois law. Ten of those have been enacted. Of the nine untouched recommendations, six deal with limits on campaign contributions, which exist for federal elections and in most states, but not in Illinois. Thus, a huge cloud still hangs over this state, with lobbyists, businesses and other players left to wonder whether they will get access to politicians or state contracts if they don't give enough money to the right people. 

"People with money and power use our democratic process to add to their power and wealth," Simon and Stratton wrote in the report's preface. "People without large amounts of money increasingly feel left out and unrepresented by their own elected officials, and they feel powerless to change the system."

Those who have responded for the past decade by declaring all we need is more disclosure about contributions have no answer for why political money keeps strangling the Illinois political culture, despite immediate electronic access to campaign reports by the media and Illinois citizens. The disclosure-only philosophy has not curtailed the soiling effect of money in politics.

"If the governor and the legislature and other state leaders ignore the public's cry for help, people will feel even more disconnected from the electoral process," the authors of Tainted Democracy wrote. "The campaign finance system is so out of control that our life-blood, democracy, is tainted."

A decade after that report, political money is still making us look bad, and there's no question that fundraising demands and practices are keeping good people from entering the political arena. That weakens and taints Illinois. Coalitions to address the root problems are gaining strength, but pay-to-play is still the poster child in a state where democracy has become dollarocracy. 

Cynthia Canary of Chicago is director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, and Ed Wojcicki of Springfield is the former publisher of Illinois IssuesTainted Democracy can be found at www.ilcampaign.org under campaign finance reform.

Illinois Issues, May 2007

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