- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2008

CHICAGO

When Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich committed $8 million in state money to a local children’s hospital this fall, federal authorities said he wasn’t going to let the precious dollars out of his hands so easily. He demanded a $50,000 campaign contribution from the hospital´s chief executive in return.

It’s among the various accusations against Mr. Blagojevich, who was named last week in a federal criminal complaint on charges of trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama´s now-vacant U.S. Senate seat.

But a review by The Washington Times of state contracts and campaign contributions shows that those weren´t the only things Mr. Blagojevich didn’t let out of his office without a price tag.

Nearly half of the $664,000 Mr. Blagojevich’s campaign fund collected from corporations and organizations in just the first six months of 2008 came from groups with lucrative state contracts.

See related story:Blagojevich may allow special election

The state´s lax campaign contribution laws - possibly the least restrictive in the country - led to a culture that revolved around collecting campaign money and one that has tarred many of Illinois’ politicians.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn - both likely contenders for the governor’s race in 2010 - appeared on the national morning talk shows Sunday, calling again for Mr. Blagojevich to step down and allow Mr. Quinn to name a temporary nominee to Mr. Obama’s Senate seat. Miss Madigan filed briefs with the state Supreme Court last week, asking it to strip Mr. Blagojevich of his authority, and the state legislature plans to meet Monday in Springfield to begin impeachment proceedings.

Companies with hefty donations to Mr. Blagojevich´s campaign fund appear to have benefited in the form of lucrative state contracts.

Engineering firm Alfred Benesch & Co. and its employees, for instance, have donated at least $144,100 to Mr. Blagojevich since 2002. That includes four $10,000 checks each donated on the same day in 2004 and four more for $7,500 each donated on the same day in 2005, according to a review of state records.

The company received about $20 million in state contracts each year since 2006 and smaller amounts before then, much of it to do work on the Illinois State Tollway.

“We have made financial contributions to the campaigns of many politicians from the Democratic and Republican side,” said company President Michael Goodkind. “We do that on the basis of … support to maintain the infrastructure - the roads, bridges, schools.”

He said his company hasn´t experienced or participated in any of the “pay-to-play” bribes the governor is accused of soliciting.

“The selection of us to do work for public agencies is based on our qualifications and our experiences. We´ve been in business for over 60 years,” he said. “I believe if we´re selected for the next job, it´s because of what we did on the last job.”

But Alfred Benesch is not the only company that has state contracts and has donated to the “Friends of Blagojevich” campaign fund.

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Delta Engineering Inc., another Chicago firm, donated $14,500 in just the first six months of 2008 - and at least $120,000 since 2002 - and has been awarded nearly $1.7 million in state contracts for fiscal 2009.

Teng & Associates Inc., a Chicago design and construction firm, has donated more than $73,000 to the governor´s campaign fund, including $1,000 for meals and refreshments for fundraisers. It is on track to do $26.3 million in work on state contracts in the 2009 fiscal year, much of it on the Illinois State Tollway.

Illinois is one of the few states without a limit on the amount of campaign donations. And while corporate contributions are banned at the federal level and in many other states, they are still legal in Illinois.

“There are no bans, no limits, no restrictions on anything,” said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which is supporting a state bill that would put limits on campaign contributions similar to those found at the federal level.

On Jan. 1, the first restriction on campaign contributions will go into effect, curtailing contributions from companies with state contracts. The limit is part of what prompted Mr. Blagojevich´s rush to collect contributions under the wire.

Some thought the actions and conviction of Mr. Blagojevich´s predecessor would stop the corruption.

See related commentary:BARONE: Chicago political stains

George Ryan is in a Terre Haute, Ind., prison - and asking President Bush for a last minute get-out-of-jail card - after he was found guilty in 2006 of directing state contracts to donors.

“It seems to me that the Blagojevich people ratcheted up fundraising even beyond what any predecessor has done,” said Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and press secretary to former Gov. Jim Edgar.

Law enforcement was on to Mr. Blagojevich since slightly after he took office, Mr. Lawrence said.

“It seems like almost from the beginning, they were encouraging federal agents to take a close look at their operations,” he said.

Mr. Blagojevich was first accused in 2005 of peddling state contracts for campaign donations by none other than his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell. He later retracted the statement, but it still prompted state and federal investigations.

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