Broken Pledges? Analysis of Governor's War Chest Shows Link between Springfield and Political Contributors Is Alive and Well

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Krol Daily Herald Political Writer

When Rod Blagojevich was running for governor, he frequently and emphatically vowed to clean up state government. To end "business as usual."

"I believe we have a chance to make history here. To elect a governor who's going to change a system. A system that's become corrupt. A system that's become cynical," he told a campaign rally in downstate Johnson County in October 2002.

But a cross-check of the governor's campaign contributors against lists of those he's named to state posts and a special class of state contracts shows a strong correlation. That, government watchdog groups say, is essentially business as usual in a "pay-to-play" state, and not the work of someone truly committed to reform in Illinois.

A Daily Herald analysis found:

- $7.34 million in campaign contributions from firms with special state contracts and from people or associates of people he's appointed to state boards and commissions. That represents nearly one in five campaign dollars Blagojevich has collected since he began setting up a run for governor in 2000.

- Of the total, $3.81 million in campaign cash comes from companies that hold contracts with state agencies and the tollway authority. The more than 320 companies that donated received $2.64 billion in state business under Blagojevich.

- The other $3.53 million is from campaign donations by appointees. One in five of the more than 700 appointees are donors to Friends of Blagojevich.

- More than 80 percent of tollway construction contractors and engineering firms have given to Blagojevich's campaign fund.

The leader of the campaign finance reform movement in Illinois said the "magnitude of these numbers is stunning."

"These findings say absolutely, unequivocally, that we have a pay-to-play system, and at its most fundamental level, on money in politics, things haven't changed," said Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Blagojevich campaign spokesman Pete Giangreco strongly disagreed, dismissing as ridiculous any suggestion that contributions influence state contracts or appointments.

"We set the bar high. We knew there were going to be snarky articles," Giangreco said. "We've done more to reform state government than the other (previous) governors combined."

Voters elected Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat, in November 2002 after a series of scandals enveloped the Republican Ryan, who now awaits a federal corruption trial this fall.

Blagojevich, the son-in-law of a Chicago ward boss, ran as a reformer, ripping Ryan's way of doing business as corrupt. But Blagojevich's campaign apparatus has outpaced Ryan's fund-raising efforts by an almost 2-to-1 margin. From 2000 through 2004, Friends of Blagojevich took in $37.6 million. From 1996 to 2000, a comparable time frame, Ryan's fund collected $20.7 million.

In an effort to find out how Blagojevich has been able to raise so much money so quickly, the Daily Herald obtained Blagojevich's campaign finance records and checked them against a list of state appointments provided by the governor's office and a list of a special class of state contracts provided by the Illinois comptroller's office.

The way the state awards professional and artistic services contracts is far less restrictive than traditional open bidding. The special contracts sometimes involve getting a few bids, but the state is not required to select the lowest bidder.

This type of special contract was highlighted last week in a scathing independent audit that found Blagojevich's central purchasing department allowed four companies that won multimillion- dollar state contracts to come up with some of the specifications of the contracts on which they bid. Three of those companies have given a total of $33,000 to the governor's campaign fund. …