Law firm donates to DuPage board members, wins contract

 
A Daily Herald/Better Government Association report
Updated 1/30/2011 1:03 PM

Nine of the 15 DuPage County Board members who approved a no-bid contract for an Itasca law firm to help redraw the county's electoral boundaries have accepted campaign contributions from the group or its attorneys, a review by the Daily Herald and the Better Government Association shows.

The county board last week agreed to pay up to $125,000 to Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner for the remap work. The politically connected firm has made nearly $16,000 in donations to the nine board members, according to records from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

 

Board members contacted characterize the donations as small, and were offended by any suggestion that the money might have influenced their vote; they also say the law firm clearly is most qualified to oversee the work.

Other observers note that it's common for companies doing business with the county to contribute to elected officials' campaigns. Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner and its attorneys have made more than $250,000 in political donations since 2000.

But county board Democrats are characterizing the donations as "pay to play" hypocrisy from Republicans who criticize the same practice going on by Democrats in Chicago and Springfield.

Furthermore, the contract faces some unrelated concerns from county board Chairman Dan Cronin, himself a recipient of a $500 donation from the law firm in September.

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The contract, he said, is "very open-ended. There are other features in this contract that I find disturbing. It exceeds the original budget. There are no descriptions of duties. There are no timetables.

"I'm not sure this board has thought this through," he said.

The board voted along party lines -- 15 Republicans in favor of hiring Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner, and three Democrats against -- this past Tuesday.

As chairman, Cronin usually does not vote on contracts except to break a tie, and he did not vote on this occasion. But he said he's looking into whether he has the power to override the board's action.

The firm is supposed to work with a redistricting committee consisting of seven county board members, including Donald Puchalski, Debra Olson, Brien Sheahan and Jim Zay. Initially, the plan included a confidentiality aspect restricting what information would be made public. But Cronin protested, and the clause was stricken.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Most of the firm's donations since 2000 have gone to GOP candidates, including $625 to Puchalski, $1,550 to Sheahan, $3,040 to Olson, and $6,800 to Zay, records show.

The DuPage County Republican Central Committee, overseen by Cronin, has received roughly $9,500 in recent years.

"We give donations to candidates who we think do the best for the government and the best for the constituents," said Phillip Luetkehans, who points out the firm contributed $10,000 to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Democrat, in 2003. "Obviously, we are in a county where the elected officials primarily are Republican. So most of our donations have gone to Republican candidates."

While the contributions are perfectly legal, the firm's ties to GOP campaigns have Democrats questioning whether they are going to get a fair shake during the redistricting process -- which will redraw boundaries for the six legislative districts that county board members represent.

County board member Rita Gonzalez, an Addison Democrat, this past week called the law firm's contract "a shameful waste of the taxpayers' money."

DuPage Democratic Party Chairman Bob Peickert accused Republicans on the county board of "rewarding friends of the party" with a no-bid contract for professional services.

"This is pay-to-play in DuPage County," he said. "Republicans complain about it happening in Chicago and Springfield, but they do it here -- and they have done it for years."

Luetkehans said he's offended by any claim that his firm was awarded the contract because it has donated to Republicans in the past.

"You can ask anyone -- Democrat or Republican -- and they will tell you that we are one of the preeminent firms involved in redistricting," Luetkehans said. "I know of no other law firm in the state of Illinois that has both the software and the expertise."

The law firm also boasts extensive redistricting experience. It was involved in redrawing legislative maps for both DuPage and the state of Illinois 10 years ago.

Board members who supported the contract said it was those qualifications that made Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner the right consultant for the once-in-a-decade remap effort.

"It wasn't payback," Puchalski said. "Luetkehans is a very capable and competent attorney. He does a very good job and has been retained by the county before. I don't see where they have any basis to say that this process is somewhat tainted."

County board member Paul Fichtner said it would be "delusional" to think he would let three minor contributions totaling $650 sway his vote.

"Does that mean that every board member who has any support from unions should reject that support because union issues are being voted on by the county? Absolutely not," Fichtner said. "I'm not interested in playing politics with those who would level baseless accusations in an attempt to distort the hard work of the county board."

Fichtner also noted a formal bidding process isn't required for professional services.

"You don't necessarily want the cheapest person helping to redraw the map lines," he said. "You want the best for such an important job."

Fichtner pointed out that the Democratic board members were asked to suggest possible firms but never offered any recommendations.

Peickert said he believes Republican board members never should have recommended Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner.

"DuPage County needs to take the lead in changing the way things are done," Peickert said. "They should not be taking money from people who do business with the county."

Terry Pastika, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, said that would be problematic.

If DuPage had a policy that public officials must recuse themselves every time a campaign donor sought to have a contract with the county, "I don't know if business could get done," she said.

Still, Republicans on the county board could have avoided any scrutiny by soliciting bids for the project, she said.

"Redistricting is a highly politicized issue," Pastika said. "I don't think it's unreasonable to have considered going out to bid on the contract. Maybe the person who won the contract is the best person for the job. But it's a lot easier to defuse tension around contracts going to those who have relationships with county board members if there's a bidding process."

But Sheahan said DuPage is undertaking the most open and transparent redistricting process in its history.

He said every county board member can be involved, even if they're not on the redistricting committee. They will have full access to the consultant and the data and be able to draft their own proposed maps.

"The Democrats have exactly the same access to exactly the same data and resources everybody else on the board will have," Sheahan said. "If they want to come up with some Democratic alternative, they have all the county resources at their disposal."