Illinois Law Allows Big Checks to Governor

 

Among the charges prosecutors filed against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) Dec. 9 are allegations that he offered lucrative state business and other benefits to people who handed over big bucks for his campaign.

Blagojevich reportedly wanted $50,000 from the top officer of a Chicago children's hospital in exchange for increased pediatric-care reimbursements, according to charging documents. Also mentioned was the $60,000 raised for the governor by the president of an engineering company with a stake in a major public works plan.

Prosecutors also allege Blagojevich raised the possibility, during a recorded conversation, of getting a candidate for Illinois' vacant seat U.S. senate seat to raise $1 million for the governor's campaign kitty.

While trading state business for campaign contributions would be illegal, Illinois is one of the very few places in the country where a governor could legally accept such large checks for his campaign.

Unlike the federal government and the vast majority of states, Illinois does not cap the size of donations that individuals can give to politicians. And unlike most of the country, Illinois doesn't ban contributions from companies or labor unions, either.

The Land of Lincoln is one of only six states - along with Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Virginia - that has no limits on the source or size of contributions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Another eight states allow individuals to give however much they like, but place restrictions on corporations or labor unions. They are Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Controversies have erupted in the other states with no campaign contribution limits, but none has provoked the furor of the Blagojevich scandal.

Oregon clamped down on lobbyist gifts - but not campaign contributions - after a lobbyist for beer and wine distributors flew seven legislators to Hawaii and avoided disclosing the trips on lobbyist reports required by the state. Voters there approved a measure in 2006 to restrict the size of campaign donations, too, but that law is tangled up in court.

Missouri, on the other hand, recently abandoned dollar limits on campaign contributions. Republicans pushed through a law repealing the caps this spring, after a similar measure passed in 2006 was rejected by the state Supreme Court.

The law does require candidates to report campaign contributions greater than $5,000 more quickly. The law went into effect in August, after the state's primaries for governor and other statewide races but before the general election. Since August, $43.9 million changed hands in more than 1,200 campaign contributions of $5,000 or larger, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

In Illinois, the ability of politicians to raise unlimited amounts of money from a single contributor was a "huge" part of the Blagojevich scandal, said Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform , a Chicago-based group that tries to curb the influence of money in politics.

Making the situation worse, she said, is that Illinois office-seekers can accept money from corporations and labor unions, easy sources of cash for politicians. Because of their power and influence, most states and the federal government restrict their ability to donate to political campaigns ."

(Donors) here don't have to give their own money. They can use other people's money. People do a lot more soul searching when they're looking at their own checkbooks," she said.

Both unions and corporations have helped Blagojevich win state offices, but labor groups are his biggest donors, according to analyses by ICPR.

Since 2000, the Service Employees International Union gave Blagojevich's campaign $1.8 million; the Laborers Unions chipped in more than $1.4 million; and the Illinois Federation of Teachers donated more than $1.2 million.

SEIU and the Laborers are two of the seven unions that make up Change to Win, a labor coalition that, according to federal prosecutors, Blagojevich said he wanted to head. Blagojevich and his chief of staff discussed how to craft a deal where President-elect Barack Obama would help Blagojevich get the job in exchange for Blagojevich picking Obama's favored candidate for the U.S. Senate seat.

Last week, Obama's transition team said an internal investigation found that neither Obama nor his staff had any improper conversations with Blagojevich.

In January, campaign donation restrictions in Illinois will get considerably tighter. A new law will go into effect that's designed to curb "pay-to-play" deals, like the ones Blagojevich is accused of orchestrating.

The law will prohibit companies that do business with the state from giving money to state officers who oversee their bids or contracts. The new law is one reason Blagojevich stepped up his fundraising in the last few months, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said at a Chicago press conference while announcing the charges last week.

The charging documents say Blagojevich is believed to have wanted to raise $2.5 million from state contractors for his campaign before the pay-to-play law took effect.

Prosecutors said they intercepted a conversation in which Blagojevich allegedly said he wanted to raise $500,000 from a lobbyist involved with a $1.8 billion tollway construction project. "I could have made a larger announcement but wanted to see how they perform by the end of the year. If they don't perform," there would be consequences, according to a transcript of the conversation in the charging documents.

The pay-to-play law is the third time in 10 years Illinois has overhauled its ethics laws, but in those efforts, campaign finance reform advocates have not been able to cap the size of donations or ban corporate or labor union money.

Blagojevich nearly blocked the new law, until Obama, who was then running for president, called in a favor from Senate President Emil Jones Jr. (D) to get the bill moving in the state Senate.

 
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