Monday, August 27, 2007

The Feds Are Coming

For years, ICPR has been concerned that broadcasters don't do enough to educate the public about elections. What little news coverage there is tends to focus more on polling and the horse race than on issues, and viewers tend to see more ads than news stories.

The problem got so bad that local media reformers filed complaints in 2005 with the Federal Communications Commission arguing that the failure to cover important local issues was a violation of broadcasters' legal obligation to serve the public interest. (the complaint was dismissed without comment)

The Federal Communications Commission has announced plans to come to Chicago next month. We urge readers who share our concerns to make the trip and let the FCC know what viewers deserve to see.

Details of the meeting are sketchy at the moment. The announced date is Thursday, September 20, and they intend to take public comment. The exact time and place of the meeting are yet to be announced. So, as the broadcasters are fond of saying, stay tuned. But also, be heard. Make plans to attend the hearing, and start thinking of what you'd like to say to the FCC.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Broadcasters and the Public Interest

ICPR has for years been tracking broadcast news coverage of campaigns and elections, and for years we've been dismayed at what we see. TV stations devote a tiny share of their regular news coverage to campaigns and elections, even during the weeks and days leading up to elections. Most coverage is focused on polls and so-called "horse race" issues -- who's ahead, who's down -- while very little airtime goes to the issues that might drive voter interest. Indeed, surveys find that TV stations spend more time on teasers ("up ahead in our broadcasts…") and musical intros to the news ("and now, the news with your anchor…") than to coverage of issues and candidates in elections. Download an analysis of a typical 30-minute broadcast or a copy of the press release.

ICPR recently signed on to a statement submitted to the FCC calling for clarified guidelines for broadcasters in the digital era. The FCC has gone to great lengths to help broadcasters transition to digital broadcasting, which will expand what they can offer over the airwaves. What's missing from the picture, however, are clear rules for serving the public interest.

A copy of the filing, which was facilitated by the Benton Foundation and the Campaign Legal Center, is available here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

United Services Delivers for the Governor

Gov. Blagojevich first sought office on a promise to end business as usual. And he does seem to have developed some new practices. In the past, state contracts were, on occasion, granted to companies known to support the patron's campaign fund. Now, today's press reports suggest, contractors are showing support for their patron in new ways.

United Services of Chicago apparently paid for busses to send people to the State Fair on Democrats' Day, some of whom wore Blagojevich t-shirts and who boo'd Blagojevich's chief rival in Springfield, House Speaker Michael Madigan. Some even told reporters that they were working for the Blagojevich campaign.

United Services has many financial ties to the Governor. Contracts with the group grew from $1M in FY04 to $1.9M in FY07, and the group appears to be in line for $2.3M in state money in FY08. Press coverage has focused on a $775K DCEO contract on FY07, but the bulk of state funding appears to be through IDHS and IDOT.

Press reports suggest that Eddie Read, head of United Services, ran a PAC that gave money to Blagojevich's campaign fund. That would, of course, be the old way of doing business. The new way, apparently, is to have supporters who will pay for busses to deliver protestors to hound your opponents.

The contracts, the campaign contributions and the busloads of support raise too many questions and - once again - make Illinoisans question the fairness and honesty of their state government. A partial solution would be to enact legislation prohibiting state contractors from contributing to the officeholder who awards the contract. HB 1 and other "pay-to-play" legislation is pending in the Illinois Senate. Now that their day of State Fair play is over, legislators should get serious and pass legislation to limit opportunities to pay-to-play.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Chicago, that error-prone town

Look for new Chicago data to the website next week. We're going ahead with the release even though there are some notable errors and omissions in some candidate reports, some of which may require the filing of amended reports with the State Board. Among the oddities we've found:

The First C D Victory PAC reports transfers totaling $72,900 to "Citizens to Re-Elect Shirley Coleman." This is not now nor was there ever a committee by that name. The alleged committee shares an address with the 16th Ward Regular Democratic Organization, though, and that's also the only committee that says they support(-ed) Ald. Coleman. That committee, however, still hasn't filed disclosure reports for the first half of the year, so it's not yet clear that they did in fact receive the transfers from the First C D Victory PAC.

Citizens to Elect Willie B Cochran still shows that they cannot identify the occupation and employer of Sheila Cochran, who gave the committee $500 last year. Not only does Sheila Cochran share a last name and address with the candidate, she's also listed as the Treasurer of the committee. Surely someone can find out her occupation and employer.

Friends of Ald. Madeline Haithcock has dissolved, and they've left a mess behind them. They report $198K in non-itemized individual donations (ie, of less than $150), suggesting over 1,320 small donors. They also report $380K in non-itemized expenditures, meaning a minimum of 2,300 small vendors. While it's possible they had over 3,600 small donors and vendors, you'd think a candidate with that many total supporters would poll more than 3,224 votes in the run-off. They also show donations over $500 from 20 people, only three of whom are identified with an occupation and employer. Among those whose occupation and employer the PAC , the did not identify: David Herro, the Trib-profiled equity fund leader who fumed about Big Box; Richard Wendy, a land-use lawyer now with Freeborn & Peters who used to work for the city's Planning and Development Department; and Tim Rand, who co-owns concessions at Midway Airport (Tim's brother and business partner Everett is identified as being involved in "business" for "self."). The committee also reports a donation from "Ibrahim M. Shihodeh", probably meaning Ibrahim M. Shihadeh, a developer with Winthrop Properties. The committee dissolved in July, so we're not optimistic that the official record will be corrected, but we'll do what we can in the Sunshine Database.

New data will be posted soon.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

111 Days

Three months can define a career. Most of the alphabet soup agencies that came to embody the New Deal were created during the first three months of FDR's first presidency. In 1985, the song "We Are the World" was recorded on January 28th and hit #1 on the American charts on April 13th. Heck, the U.S. invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003 and President Bush held his "Mission Accomplished" press conference on the USS Lincoln on May 2, 2003.

Where there's a will there's a way. Alas, to date the Illinois Senate has shown no will to address pay-to-play in state contracting.

Despite dozens of news reports highlighting state contracts awarded to campaign contributors, despite exit polls last November showing that 86% of voters think fixing political corruption is very or extremely important to them, despite the support of every major reform organization in the state, despite supportive editorials in over 15 of the largest newspapers around the state, despite the endorsement of five of the six statewide officers in Illinois, despite the votes of 116 members of the Illinois House, and in the face of 46 Senators (out of 59) who have signed on as Sponsors, the bill has never even had a hearing in the Senate.

Today marks the 111th day that House Bill 1 has been locked down in the Senate.

While Senate President Jones and his spokespeople insist they want something "bigger and better," no alternatives to HB 1 have been filed for public hearing. With a budget sent to the Governor, will the Senate President now devote more of his energies to making this happen? He has several possible avenues. Sen. Jeff Schoenberg has worked hard to include pay-to-play rules in his pension and procurement reforms. Sen. Don Harmon still has HB 1 as a stand-alone measure. The public isn't as interested in vehicles as they are in results. Bromides aside, it is high time for the Senate to declare what they will support.

Data Update

We're nearly finished cleaning up the disclosure reports filed by candidates for the first half of 2007. We'd hoped to have it done sooner, but some candidates were late to file. Yesterday, Chicago Alderman Willie Cochran filed his report, 24 days past the statutory deadline, and 13 days past the old due date.

Cochran defeated Arenda Troutman for the seat, and while late filing can't compare with federal indictment, he's still off to a bad start. There were two PACs supporting his candidacy: Citizens to Elect Willie B. Cochran, which he chairs, came in late. Citizens United for Change in the 20th Ward filed on time. He ought to take pointers from the other committee. He's a new alderman and a first time candidate, but we hope he's learned that deadlines matter.

With Cochran's report, we're now about ready to post the new data. Look for new Chicago, State and Cook County data on our Sunshine Database within a week.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Protect Integrity of Capital Spending Plan with Pay-to-Play Reform Legislation

Before the General Assembly adopts a new capital spending plan, whether it is focused on roads and schools or includes bridge repair, it should enact new limits on campaign contributions from state contractors.

“The story on page one of today's Sun-Times reminds us of the history of links between state contractors and state campaigns. Antoin "Tony" Rezko raised untold thousands for Gov. Blagojevich's campaign PAC. And once in office, Rezko seeded the administration with friends, former staffers, business partners and their children. His companies obtained lucrative contracts through the tollway,” said ICPR Director Cynthia Canary. “Until his federal corruption trial is over, no one will know exactly how perfidious the relationship between Rezko and Blagojevich actually was.”

But Rezko was not alone, other examples include:

• IGOR the Watchdog gave Gov. Blagojevich's campaign fund $76K and saw a $150K contract to oversee the sale of Tollway I-Pass transponders balloon into a $7M deal.

• PWS Environmental gave Gov. Blagojevich's campaign fund $22K and got a $522K contract from IDOT to power wash state buildings, including salt domes. PWS' president was also the brother-in-law of then-IDOT Director Robert Millette.

• Harmony Health Plan of Illinois gave Gov. Blagojevich's campaign fund $100K, in five $20K checks from different subsidiaries on the same day and later got a $75M state contract.

All of these stories, well documented in the popular press, helped convince voters that there is an unhealthy connection between campaign fund and state contracts. That's in part why 86% of voters in last November's elections said that corruption was very or extremely important to them. To ensure that a new round of capital spending doesn't result in a new round of headlines, the state must pass tough pay-to-play restrictions.

“We commend Sen. Jeff Schoenberg for doing yeoman's work to find a way to include pay-to-play reforms in the same legislation as the pension and procurement reforms, he has long advocated,” said Canary.

In the meantime, the House approved pay to play legislation (House Bill 1) more than three months ago. If brought to a vote the Senate could send the legislation to the Governor immediately. The time for inaction has long since passed.

Friday, August 03, 2007

U.S. Lobbying

The U.S. Congress this week agreed to new rules governing lobbying. With two former Members of Congress now in jail, former staffers convicted or awaiting trial, and several current investigations on-going, the time arrived for federal legislators to take a good hard look at their relationships with lobbyists.

What they saw was ugly, and they took appropriate steps to address that.

The new proposal tightens regulations on gifts, flights and travel that Members of Congress may accept. It addresses the revolving door problem, of former legislators lobbying their former colleagues. And it requires disclosure of bundling where the lobbyist raises more than $15,000 in a six-month period for the official.

There are a host of scandals, on both sides of the aisle, that led Congress to take this action. But what matters is that they worked together to find a way through it, and passed a measure with broad, bipartisan support.

Reform -- real reform, anyway -- is a long process. Discussion leads to legislation, leads to changes in practice, leads to changes in culture. This is one step along a long path to improved public trust in government. The feds deserve credit for advancing along that path.

If tougher lobbying rules can pass Congress, there is reason to have hope for changes in Illinois.