M. Spencer Green/AP
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

Illinois Governor, Legislature in Tug-of-War Over Campaign Ethics

September 26, 2008 02:25 PM
by Anne Szustek
Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich is pushing legislation to close loopholes in campaign finance law. But detractors in his party say it’s nothing more than cosmetics for his allegedly corrupt administration.

Ill. Campaign Finance Loopholes Open to Window Dressing?

Illinois just passed a state law outlawing campaign donations totaling in excess of $50,000 to those in state office, from any one who holds or is pursuing a business contract with the state.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his main ally in the Illinois state Senate, Emil Jones, D-Chicago, then pushed a bill through the upper house of the legislature to have the ban apply to state legislators as well. The state Senate passed the law 50-1, nearly two weeks after the state House knocked down a similar Blagojevich initiative in a 110-3 vote.

And the Illinois state House is likely to vote down this bill as well. The vote, marking a small win for the governor, does not necessarily mean he has nearly unanimous support in the state Senate, however.

The 50-1 vote came a day after the Illinois Senate voted to override a Blagojevich veto on a bill to cap political contributions from state contractors, whom the Chicago Sun-Times terms Blagojevich’s “political lifeblood.”

The initial version of the law was arguably passed in reaction to the recent scandal surrounding Chicago real estate developer Antonin “Tony” Rezko, who was convicted in June of corruption in connection for demanding kickbacks from businesses seeking Illinois state government contracts. Rezko donated heavily to several Illinois politicians of both major parties, including Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his predecessor, GOP Gov. George Ryan, who is currently incarcerated in federal prison on corruption convictions.

After Blagojevich was elected, he allegedly convinced the politician to build Rezko’s business associates into Illinois’s first Democratic administration since 1977.

State Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, was quoted by the Chicago Tribune as calling Blagojevich’s package mere “face-saving legislation.” Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, was also quoted by the paper as saying, “the problem in Illinois, the cancer in Illinois, is the governor.”

Key Player: Rod Blagojevich (1956–)

Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich was born on Chicago’s Northwest Side in 1956. He earned his bachelor’s from Northwestern University in 1979 and his Juris Doctorate from Pepperdine University in 1983. He started his political life as an assistant state attorney in Cook County, Chicago’s county, where he prosecuted felony arms and domestic abuse charges. A Democrat, he was first elected to Congress in 1996, where he worked to procure funding for after-school programs and health care initiatives, including a Patients’ Bill of Rights. He was elected governor of Illinois in 2002, and was reelected in 2006.

His numerous gubernatorial accomplishments have been tarnished by corruption allegations, however. Democratic State Rep. John Fritchey, whose district includes Blagojevich’s Chicago residence, in April was quoted as saying in the Rockford, Ill., paper The Register Star, there “is a growing public clamor” for the governor to be impeached.

Garnering the most attention nationwide are his possible campaign funding connections to Tony Rezko.

Blagojevich has also been under investigation for alleged misconduct in hiring for state jobs. U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, and the governor’s fellow Democratic Chicago politico, Ill. Attorney General Lisa Madigan, investigated potential rigging in hiring for top jobs. In mid-2006, Madigan, with approval from Fitzgerald, released a letter to the public outlining the possible misconduct. Fitzgerald then had Madigan step aside from the case so as not to impede the federal investigation.

Related Topic: Recent campaign funding legislation

Major legislation was passed in Congress in 2002 and 2007 on campaign finance reform. The 2007 Ethics Law, which took effect on Sept. 24 last year, prohibits lobbyists from giving gifts or free meals to members of Congress. Only hors d’oeuvres that fit on toothpicks may be served at lobbyist events. Violators can expect five years in prison and a $200,000 fine.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who voted for the law, has said that the greater issue of ethics has been lost in minutiae like the toothpick rule, which, she was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as saying, is “kind of dumb.”

In 2002, the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act banned soft money contributions—money given to political organizations that do not directly support a candidate. Several interest groups such as the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association filed lawsuits, arguing that the bill was unconstitutional; however the Supreme Court upheld the law in 2003.

Lobbyists have found loopholes through which to wine and dine legislators in the hopes of wooing someone to their cause.

By holding events in privately owned townhomes and offices on Capitol Hill, these groups are able to circumvent the law. According to USA Today, 214 members of Congress had attended such functions from January to November 2007.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines