Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ryan Appeal Denied

The US Court of Appeals has denied Gov. George Ryan's effort to gain a new trial on corruption charges, finding that "In the end, the evidence supporting the jury's verdict was overwhelming." And what was that overwhelming evidence?

• That Ryan personally participated in schemes to rig contracts for vehicle stickers and computer equipment, and leases for state offices in Joliet, Chicago, and South Holland;
• That Ryan lied to investigators about bribes paid in the form of vacations to Jamaica, and his role in quashing the original investigation into the sale of drivers licenses that contributed to the deaths of the Willis kids
• That Ryan evaded paying income taxes on his and his children's illegal payments in 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998

Ryan's indictment in December, 2003 and his conviction in 2006 laid bare a broad scope of problems that continue to fester in Illinois politics. At the time of his conviction, ICPR issued a statement about "look[ing] beyond the Ryan verdict." We still think these areas deserve attention. Rather than focus on what went wrong in the past, let's figure out what to do in the future so that it doesn't happen again.

* Tackle Pay-to-Play: Illinois still has no rules limiting how much state contractors can give to the campaign funds of the public officials who negotiate and sign their contracts.

* Adopt contribution limits: Illinois should join with nearly all other states and the federal government in adopting campaign contribution limits and banning direct contributions from unions and corporations.

* Revise lobbyist regulations: Criminal shakedowns were cloaked with legitimacy by pretending the payoffs were lobbying fees. The public has a right to know more about what lobbyists are doing.

* Improve the 2003 Ethics Act: The Act, adopted before the indictment and trial, was a terrific starting point, but time has shown its weaknesses, particularly in regard to oversight of Inspectors General and the Ethics Commissions.

George Ryan has been held responsible for his actions and, it appears, will soon head to jail. Perhaps the sight of a governor behind bars will motivate Illinois' current crop of elected officials to take action before it happens again.

Dependents as Donors and Dependent Candidates

Our friends at the Wisconsin Democracy Project recently unveiled findings that students had contributed $86K to candidates in Wisconsin since 2002. Many of those gave only after their parents had maxed out their legal contributions to the same candidates, under Wisconsin's system of contribution limits. It appears that some of these students may be funneling donations from their parents to get around the limits, which is illegal.

Yesterday's Washington Post had a story on the same thing, in federal elections. They found a two-year-old Chicago child who gave the maximum $2,300 donation to a candidate, at the same time that her older brother and sister, ages 9 and 13, also gave $2,300 each to the same candidate, along with two of their 13-year-old cousins. The two-year-old's parents had already maxed out their giving. The WaPo story notes that these donations "almost certainly run afoul of campaign finance regulations."

We rarely see donations from children in Illinois, in part because we have no limits. If someone really wants to give large amounts of cash to a candidate, there's no legal impediment to doing so, and no reason to break the law by parceling the money out among a bunch of straw donors.

But the problem that the Post and WDC found isn't so much that some parents use their kids to sneak around the limits, it's that candidates can become too reliant for money from a tiny number of donors. And we have that problem in Illinois in spades.

Here in Illinois, most candidates for statewide office get most of their money from donors who pony up $10,000 or more, and those donors account for a teeny tiny fraction of all Illinoisans -- less than one-tenth of one -percent.

Last night at the opening game of the World Series, Boston crushed the Rockies. Fenway's a small park, with a seating capacity of only about 36,000. And yet, it's roughly analogous to how campaign finance works. There are 13 million people in Illinois, and fewer than 600 account for most of the money raised. There are more players on a baseball field, relative to the number of fans in the stands, than there are large donors and residents in the state. At Fenway, it's as if only two fielders matter, out of all the people at the game. And those large donors exercise a vastly disproportionate influence on the political agenda elected officials follow. Fans are there to watch baseball games, but voters expect more from their government.

Limits may be imperfect, but they are a tool to address the problem of big donors' disproportionate influence on public policy. The difference between Illinois and other states isn't so much that candidates become dependent on a small group of donors -- it's that other states have tools to address the problem, while Illinois does not.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Open Book

Kudos to Comptroller Dan Hynes, who yesterday unveiled Open Book, a new website to link campaign contributions and state contracts. The site combines the Comptroller's contract database and the State Board of Elections' campaign disclosure files, so that visitors can enter a name into one search box and find matches in both databases. What's more, Open Book searches campaign donations through both the donor field and the employer field, greatly reducing the number of steps involved.

Go play with it and see how easy it is.

The announcement got a great reception, with cheers from ICPR, the Better Government Association and the Sunshine Project, and stories in AP, the Tribune, GateHouse, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Champaign Urbana News-Gazette, and the Small Newspaper Group.

Plus, the Tribune and the Bloomington Pantagraph both renewed their calls for HB 1 this morning. Their timing is great.

Now what kind of timing does the state Senate have?

Friday, October 19, 2007

What Pat Quinn Really Thinks of Pay-to-Play

As if his statement to the press yesterday wasn’t enough, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn is leaving no doubt about his concerns with pay-to-play state contracting. Check out the animation and soundtrack added to his homepage:

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Who's Going to Give the Governor $3-5 Million?

A major political organization is holding its big annual fundraiser in Chicago tonight. Sponsors are paying up to $20,000 for the title "honorary co-chair." And no, it's not our event.

It's Gov. Blagojevich's, and if past fundraisers are any indication, he's expected to pull in $3-5 million. That's more than most previous governors have raised at a single event, but it's par for the course for Blagojevich, who has raised more than anyone else in the history of Illinois politics.

The size of his fundraising is noteworthy by itself, but who gives has also raised eyebrows, and concerns. As Deanna Bellandi reports for the AP today, "Contributors have gained spots on state boards and commissions; donors have received state business; lobbyists who are friends and associates of the governor have won lucrative contracts for their clients; and his top fundraisers have had a say in government policy and appointments."

Friends of Blagojevich won't have to report receipts from the event until next January, so we won't know for sure who gave or if any of today's haul looks improper. But the history of donors getting state contracts, coupled with demonstrated illegalities in the Operation Safe Road and Hired Truck trials, suggest that Illinois needs more regulation over some campaign contributions than are now on the books.

HB 1, the pay to play ban, certainly deserves public debate and a floor vote. It's been tied up in the Senate for 176 days now without any sign that Senate leadership is prepared to address the problem. Lt Gov. Pat Quinn today calls for action on HB 1, and Comptroller Dan Hynes, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, and Secretary of State Jesse White have all declared their public support for the measure; to date, the governor is the only fence sitter.

Thonight's fundraiser is being held while the legislature is considering a multi-billion dollar capital construction program. Before another fundraising cycle slips by, sponsors of this bill, whose number includes fully three-fourths of the members of the Senate, should find a way to move this bill.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Illinois Campaign Disclosure Ranked #1, and #29, in the Country

A new national survey of state campaign finance disclosure systems ranks Illinois tops in the nation for its electronic filing program,. The same survey, by the Campaign Disclosure Project of the California Voter Foundation based at UCLA, gave Illinois low marks for the campaign disclosure law, ranking us 29th in the nation. The report is here; press coverage is here and here.

The findings mirror similar reports in 2005 and 2003, that the State Board of Elections does a fantastic job of letting the public know what's in the disclosure reports, but that the underlying disclosure law leave a lot to be desired. We still have no rules on the size and source of donations, allowing corporations, unions, and associations to give unlimited amounts; allowing unrestricted transfers between committees, even tolerating donations from regulated industries and state contractors. All of these are regulated in nearly every other state in the country. Legislation to address these failings, including HB 1 and HB 3497 languish in the Senate and House respectively.

The report is right to praise what we do well, but it also serves as another reminder of the work we have yet to do.

Update: State Board of Elections Postpones Decision on Stroger's A-1 Fines

The State Board of Elections met Monday to consider fines to be assessed against the Friends of Todd H. Stroger for President committee, as we mentioned last week. Staff at the Board found that the committee failed to disclose an astounding 78 donations totaling over $250K in donations received during the A-1 period in the 2006 General Election. Despite the large number of undisclosed donations, staff recommended a fine of just 10%, the lowest level allowed by statute.

The matter came before the Board on Monday and, long story short, the Board took no action, deferring to their next meeting. They were unable to find five votes in favor of a penalty. Member Patrick Brady recused himself for an undisclosed conflict. A motion to accept the hearing officer's recommendation and impose a $25K fine failed with four votes in favor (John Keith, Vice Chairman Bryan Schneider, Jesse Smart, and Robert Walters), three opposed (Bill McGuffage, Chairman Albert Porter, and Wanda Rednour), and Brady abstaining. A second motion to impose a fine only on the transfers and not the direct contributions (the resulting tally would have levied a fine of $14,200) also failed, with Keith, McGuffage, Porter, and Rednour voting yes, Schneider, Smart and Walters voting no, and Brady abstaining. The matter was continued to the November 19 meeting, which will be held in Springfield.

To put the Stroger committee's violations in perspective is difficult. The Board does not keep records of violations that facilitate historical comparisons. But in our research, we haven't found any committee that has failed to disclose more than a dozen donations in a single election. No one had failed to disclose more than $100K in a single election. The Stroger committee's failures to disclose dwarf all previous violations.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Discounts for law-breaking politicians

As the state struggles with a massive budget crisis, as the CTA crumbles for lack of funds and schools are forced to borrow money the state should have appropriated by now, name one state agency that regularly tries to cut the penalties they assess law breakers? Ladies and gentlemen, we give you: the State Board of Elections.

Funny, that in this case the law breakers are all political committees.

Late last week, the Sun-Times reported that a campaign fund for Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, facing a quarter million dollars in fines, is likely to see that penalty amount reduced by 90%. It's frustrating enough that the State Board of Elections is, alone among cash-strapped state agencies, determined to slash fees and penalties for violations of state laws to the lowest possible legal amount. Even more galling is Stroger for President's argument for an even lower penalty.

Stroger for President's penalties result from the failure to report donations received in the 30 days before the 2006 General Election. The law requires that PACs report donations of more than $500 received within the last 30 days before an election within two business days. These A-1 reports let voters know where candidates are drawing financial support in the final days before voting, when candidates are most eager to raise cash, and donors are best positioned to extract promises in return.

The staff at the State Board of Elections determined that Friends of Todd H Stroger for President failed to report an astounding 78 donations -- totaling more than a quarter of a million dollars -- as required by law. The penalty for failing to report those donations can be, by statute, as much as 100%. Statute outlines these criteria for the Board to consider when setting the fine:

(1) whether in the Board's opinion the violation was committed inadvertently, negligently, knowingly, or intentionally
(2) the number of days the contribution was reported late; and
(3) past violations of [the Election Code].

In practice, however, the Board has almost always assessed penalties of 10% of the unreported donation -- the bare minimum allowed by law. No matter whether the violation as intentional, no matter how late the contributions were reported; indeed, without any apparent regard for the criteria set in statute. The Board’s consistent practice to reduce the penalty to the smallest possible amount runs counter the evaluation that statute directs the Board to undertake.

Now comes the Stroger for President committee, arguing that even 10% is too high. We cannot fault their attorney for making an argument in defense of his client; that’s the lawyer’s job, after all, and who wouldn't want to pay less for breaking the law? But we can fault the Board for encouraging PACs to discount the seriousness of this violation. Setting penalties at the very lowest end of the statutory range regardless of the reasons for the violation has now encouraged PACs to try to jawbone them down even lower. The Board's pattern of routinely giving political committees breaks no other agency would give to the general public fosters the sense that these public disclosure rules don't really matter.

Obviously, we think the Board should reject Stroger for President’s arguments and assess penalties on the entire amount of non-reported contributions. The Board should also rethink their practice of automatically cutting penalties to 10%. Telling candidates that a violation will cost only 10% may encourage willful hiding of potentially troublesome donations. If disclosure means anything, if the public's right to know is to have any meaning in the context of an election, the Board needs to set real standards and assess penalties commensurate with the scope of the violation.

Monday, October 08, 2007

ICPR to Celebrate 10-Year Anniversary


The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR) announced Monday that the 2007 Paul Simon Public Service Awards will be presented to Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes and to Peggy Boyer Long, executive editor of Illinois Issues magazine.
The awards will be presented at a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of ICPR by the late Sen. Simon. The event will begin at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7, at the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, 455 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago.
Hynes, now in his third term as State Comptroller, will be recognized for his leadership in the effort to enact legislation to limit opportunities for pay-to-play in state contracting, to reform state laws regulating lobbyists and to create a public financing system for elections to the state’s highest courts. In addition, Hynes issued an executive order prohibiting contractors with his office from contributing to his campaign fund.
“Because he knows how important it is that the public be able to trust its elected leaders and because he understands that the appearance of impropriety is very damaging to our political system, Comptroller Hynes has been willing to go the extra mile for reforms of Illinois election campaigns and the operation of state government,” said Cynthia Canary, Director of ICPR. “We are pleased to be able to recognize his commitment to the cause.”
Long, a veteran broadcast and print journalist, will be recognized for her many contributions to the public’s understanding of the operation of state government and the issues debated in the General Assembly. During her 13 years of leadership at Illinois Issues, the magazine has provided in-depth coverage of the State Capitol and has been a reliable source of information about the impact of legislation on all areas of the state. From 1975 to 1978 and from 1989 to 1991, she was State Capitol bureau chief for public radio in Springfield. At the end of the year, Long will retire from her positions as executive editor of the magazine and as director of Center Publications, Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
“Because Illinois seems to be fertile ground for scandals and scoundrels, the political beat here is a dream job for many journalists,” Canary said. “For more than three decades, Peggy Boyer Long has provided insightful reporting and commentary on the political and policy debates at the State Capitol and has been a mentor to many aspiring reporters. Because Paul Simon had a hand in the founding of Illinois Issues more than 30 years ago, it is fitting that this award in his name is going to the person whose hard work in the face of lean budgets and upheaval in the magazine industry has maintained the magazine’s high quality.”
This is the third year that ICPR has presented the Paul Simon Public Service Awards. The first awards in 2005 were presented to two close associates of former Sen. Simon -- former Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch and former congressman and federal appeals court judge Abner Mikva.
The 2006 awards were presented to Mike Lawrence, who is Director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University; Newton Minow, a partner at Sidley and Austin and former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; and to the editorial board of The Peoria Journal Star.
“During his years on Capitol Hill and in Springfield, Paul Simon was always at the forefront of government and political reform efforts,” said Canary. “Clearly, he saw the need for reform, but he also understood the need to educate voters and provide the research to back up the call for reform. That led to his decision in 1997 to create ICPR, a statewide non-profit without allegiance to any political party.
“He helped bring many organizations to the table to work together on many key reforms,” she said. “Because there have been so many political scandals in Illinois and reform ideas often are strongly resisted in the Capitol, it is important to remember that significant changes have occurred during the past decade.
“Campaign contribution information is more complete and easy for citizens to access on the internet,” Canary noted. “State employees now have ethics training, and a system of investigators and ethics commissions is in place to pursue allegations of questionable behavior. But there obviously is much more to do to clean-up state government in Illinois.”
ICPR led the effort to pass sweeping ethics reform legislation in 2003. Its work includes monitoring enforcement of the new ethics law; researching and reporting of campaign contribution and expenditure trends; encouraging informed and issue-oriented debate in judicial elections; developing non-partisan, state-sponsored voter education guides; advocating increased and improved coverage of election campaigns by broadcasters; and seeking passage of legislation to limit the influence of large contributors to political campaigns.
For more information about the 10th anniversary event on November 7, visit the ICPR website (

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Willing and ABLE

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a piece on financial support for Barack Obama's presidential campaign from a group called Alliance of Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, an organization of African-American business leaders.

The story focused on financial support to his U.S. Senate and Presidential campaigns. Some of those donors gave to Obama previously, when he ran for the U.S. House in 2000 and even to his State Senate campaigns. That support wasn't nearly as large or consistent, but it does give a fuller picture of the longstanding ties between Obama and these supporters.

The attached spreadsheet details donations from members of ABLE to Obama's earlier campaigns. ABLE donors account for about 4% of Obama's fundraising for his state Senate and U.S. House races.

We would have posted this earlier, but our website, if you've been checking, has been up and down. We're moving to a new Internet connection, and our domain name is as we speak switching to a new URL. That process should be done soon; in the meantime, our site may be hard to find, and our e-mails will bounce. All of which goes to show, computers are great when the work. When they don't work, they're just expensive paperweights, or very valuable Frisbees. We appreciate your patience. If the link for the attached file isn't working, please get in touch with us and we'll e-mail it out.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Note to Legislature: Legislation, not Personality Conflict, is the Reason for Sessions

The legislature returns to the state capitol today to address gubernatorial vetoes and emergency legislation in their annual "veto session." Of course, they're still in regular session, and 16 special sessions, so there's no telling what they might do.

2007 has set too many dismal records to count. In addition to the obvious "longest overtime session," this may also be dubbed the least productive session in recent memory. Rather than argue over the substance of legislation (which, whether the argument takes place among rank and file members or among the four tops is usually what long sessions are for), this one is instead focused on personality conflicts and power trips.

The first year of the four-year statewide term finds the state's three most powerful Democrats locked in a battle to determine which one of them is really in charge. Leaders do this sometimes, but the check on this bad behavior is usually the other 173 legislators who serve as ballast, pulling their leaders back to more rational positions.

But not this year. While the leaders squabble, the other 173 have been just witnesses. Why? The Kankakee Daily Journal editorialized over the weekend with a list of reasons. And their main focus? The concentration of campaign funds in the Four Tops.

"The leaders get to decide if you will have an opponent who's well-funded -- or none at all. To be competitive in a "targeted" race means $500,000 for a House seat and $1 million for a Senate seat."

Their fixes include a host of campaign finance reforms to end the concentration of money at the top: stop transfers, bar stockpiling of money, eliminate giving by gambling interests. Lastly? Limit donations, to force members to broaden their financial base and reach out to small donors.

The Daily Journal's suggestions are well worth considering. Especially this week. If nothing else comes of this year's session, perhaps we can at least get a sense of the problems we face, and why it can be so hard to keep the leaders' focus where it should be.