'Lobbyists get payments and lobbyists pay legislators'
Public money paid to state and federal lobbyists hired by transit agencies doesn't necessarily stay in neutral for long.
Instead, thousands of dollars from lobbying firms flow to the political campaigns of federal and state lawmakers and political action committees.
The Daily Herald found through Freedom of Information Act requests that the Regional Transportation Authority, Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and Metra spent more than $12.8 million on 27 lobbying firms since 2004.
In that same time frame, some of those lobbyists donated more than $1.8 million to Illinois politicians, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. And nearly $276,000 went to congressional candidates between 2006 and the present, records from the watchdog group OpenSecrets.org indicate.
Local state and federal lawmakers have garnered more than $135,000 in the past six years from lobbyists that contracted with the CTA, Metra, RTA and Pace.
Transit officials say lobbyists are a way of life in Springfield and Washington, D.C., bringing clients' interests to the halls of power and securing desperately needed funding.
But local lawmakers differ sharply on the efficacy of the industry.
“Most of the education I receive is from my constituents,” said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, a Park Ridge Democrat. “They use public transit on a daily basis.”
When lobbyists donate to politicians, it compromises the process, state Sen. Susan Garrett contended.
“It's difficult if we as legislators are scrutinizing how taxpayer dollars are spent if in fact lobbyists are providing our campaigns with contributions. It's a circle game. Lobbyists get payments and lobbyists pay legislators,” the Lake Forest Democrat said.
In a perfect world, no one would need lobbyists, said outgoing state Rep. Paul Froehlich, a Schaumburg Democrat.
But “the reality is, it's part of the system and there's no use denying that,” Froehlich said. “It's how the system works whether we like to admit it or not.”
Some said it's unfair to demonize lobbying firms.
“I have no problem with good lobbyists who are truthful and give the correct information,” said state Rep. Sid Mathias, a Buffalo Grove Republican.
Connecting the dots
Good government groups criticize the revolving door phenomenon where lawmakers and bureaucrats exit public life only to morph into lobbyists who can use both the carrot and stick methods of putting pressure on former colleagues and making generous campaign donations.
For example, the federal lobbying firm Capricorn Communications is led by former U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski, an influential ex-member of the House Transportation Committee. Son U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, a Western Springs Democrat, now sits on the same committee. Capricorn received $750,742 combined from the CTA and Metra.
Here's a snapshot of other state and federal lobbying firms.
The Carmen Group has received $4 million from Metra since 2004 for federal lobbying. Its principals include former Reagan adviser David Carmen, former U.S. Department of Transportation official David Kunz, and John Ladd, son of former Metra board Chairman Jeff Ladd. Metra officials said Jeff Ladd recused himself from any votes on the Carmen contract. The Carmen Group has donated $118,200 to federal candidates since 2006.
Leinenweber & Baroni Consulting received $287,290 from the RTA for state lobbying from 2004 to the present. Consultants include Peter Baroni, former counsel to the Illinois Senate president. The firm has contributed $115,590 to state political campaigns since 2004.
TaylorUhe has received $228,333 from the RTA for state lobbying since 2008. Its principals include Rob Uhe, former counsel to Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan. TaylorUhe has given $104,022 to state campaigns since its establishment in 2007.
Illinois Strategies received $207,675 from Pace for state lobbying services between 2005 and 2009. Its staff includes Brice Sheriff, a former Illinois Department of Transportation executive. The firm has donated $90,536 to state candidates since 2004.
Mayer Brown received $271,113 from the RTA for state lobbying from 2004 through 2008. Firm consultants include Julian D'Esposito, a former counsel to retired Gov. James R. Thompson. Mayer Brown has donated $1.1 million to state candidates and political action committees since 2004.
Dozens of suburban Republicans and Democrats are recipients of state and federal lobbyist donations.
Among those who received more than $5,000 in the past six years from firms hired by transit agencies are state Sens. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, Waukegan Democrat Terry Link, Elmhurst Republican Dan Cronin, Elgin Democrat Michael Noland and Kotowski, as well as U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican.
“You can't get around the fact we as lawmakers have to rely on the counsel of others,” Noland said, “whether it be staff, colleagues, or folks referred as lobbyists.” But donations don't affect him, Noland said. “I continually walk my district to find out how people think about issues and that's what influences me the most,” he said.
Cronin called the $12.8 million spent on lobbyists a “significant sum of money.” But he said lobbying “is an important part of the legislative process” and played a role in 2007 when the RTA Act was rewritten.
“I look at the issues, and if they have merit, that gets my vote. If they don't have merit, I have no trouble accepting contributions on Tuesday and voting against (an issue) on Wednesday,” Cronin said.
Kotowski said his judgments are based on “if something is in the best interests of my community.”
Meanwhile, Dillard said “these contributions from firms make no difference to me whatsoever.” He urged newly appointed RTA Chairman John Gates to scrutinize lobbying expenses at all agencies. “I would hope Mr. Gates would ask for justification on every one of these contracts,” Dillard said.
One official with a lobbying firm said because it's staffed by former legislators and government workers, it offers a level of expertise clients don't have. For example, the economic stimulus bill was more than 1,100 pages, but experts at the firm read it and gave analysis to clients that's difficult to duplicate. Lobbying firms understand what it takes to wade through complicated government paperwork necessary for grants or submitting reports, he said.
As far as campaign contributions go, lobbyists prefer not to have to raise money for legislators and support efforts to make campaign contributions more transparent, the official said.
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform is urging the state to reform lobbying laws by increasing enforcement authority and public disclosure. “These are people who are paid to influence government; the public needs to know more about what they're doing to feel confident they're playing a beneficial role,” the reform group's assistant director, David Morrison, said.
Currently, “it's definitely difficult to follow the bouncing ball,” said Terry Pastika, head of the Citizen Advocacy Center.