Democrats on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District have awarded $722 million in government contracts to their campaign donors the past five years.
At the same time, those donors contributed more than $400,000 in campaign cash to board commissioners, who oversee wastewater treatment, stormwater detention and waterways in Cook County.
That's according to an analysis of campaign contributions and contracts by the Illinois Green Party.
"That took us by surprise," said Geoffrey Cubbage, the secretary of the Illinois Green Party and a write-in candidate for the board. "We figured we'd find something, but we didn't figure we'd find as much as we did."
The analysis includes campaign contributions to former Commissioner Cynthia Santos, who was appointed to the Illinois Pollution Control Board in December 2016. Commissioner David Walsh, who was appointed to the board in 2015, has not raised any campaign funds, according to the election records.
Businesses contributing to commissioners have been awarded about 60 percent of all contract spending over the last five years, according to the analysis.
Experts say the contributions create an appearance of corruption. Kent Redfield, a campaign finance expert and professor at University of Illinois Springfield, said the board should create pay-to-play rules to eliminate the opportunity for quid-pro-quo politics and conflicts of interest.
"In this case, the appearance of corruption is as corrosive to the public's sense of legitimacy and integrity as actual corruption," Redfield said.
Candidates seeking election in the Democratic primary differed in their response to the study.
Incumbent Commissioner Debra Shore of Evanston has received about $90,000 from businesses with district contracts, according to the analysis. Shore defended the contributions, saying that each contract goes through an open competitive bidding process.
"Anyone who contributes to my campaign supports the work I've been doing and wants to see me continue doing that," she said.
Shore said her campaign follows ethics rules similar to those imposed by Cook County and the city of Chicago, which restrict the money a candidate can receive from donors who seek "official action" from the government. The water reclamation district has no such limitations.
Shore said she previously tried to implement those ethics rules but failed to gain support from the board.
Marcelino Garcia, a potential newcomer from Chicago, said he would not accept donations from businesses with contracts.
"I don't want to say they're selling their votes, but when people contribute, you see them more favorably or there's an expectation," Garcia said. "It happens. It's not good."
Incumbent commissioners Martin Durkan and Kari Steele, who are seeking re-election, did not respond to comment for this story. Durkan has received $11,700 and Steele has received $9,300 from companies with water reclamation district contracts, according to the study.
Kimberly DuBuclet of Chicago, who's seeking a two-year term created by a vacancy, could not be reached for comment.
The primary election is March 20.