Reform group includes Harper in complaints on Illinois lobbying

 
 
Published3/31/2009 12:01 AM

Harper College officials say the four-year degree programs they want to offer won't cost local taxpayers anything, but they won't come entirely free of charge.

The Palatine community college already has spent more than $200,000 just on lobbyists in the past two years.

 

A new report by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform set to be released today shows Harper officials increased their spending on clout-heavy lobbyists last year by 50 percent, from $84,000 in 2007 to $126,000 in 2008. The report analyzes lobbying efforts from dozens of governmental agencies to highlight how much taxpayer money is being spent to lobby other taxpayer-funded entities, and cites Harper's lobbying expense as a troubling example of the practical costs of passing legislation in Illinois.

What's more, Harper's heightened spending on lobbyists came as a political committee tied to the college also was doling out cash to the campaigns of suburban lawmakers.

It remains unclear whether the money itself had any impact, but the push to allow Harper to grant four-year bachelor degrees - an authority currently denied community colleges like Harper - does appear to have a better shot at becoming law this session than in years past because former Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a key opponent, has retired.

Harper spokesman Phil Burdick said the college needed to hire more lobbyists to compete against large universities that are spending even more to oppose the four-year degree program.

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"The reality in Springfield," Burdick says, "is that there are a lot of entrenched interests and bureaucracies that get in the way of trying to serve the people in our district."

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said that is precisely his group's concern.

The reform campaign's report shows the cash shelled out by Harper for outside lobbying last year is more than twice the amount spent by several four-year state universities. The report did not include several large state universities. Harper's spending also surpasses the amount spent on lobbying by other community colleges, according to the report.

Harper officials have spread their lobbying contracts across several clout-heavy firms.

For the last two years, they hired Milan Petrovic's Advanced Practical Solutions for $60,000. Petrovic was a member of ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich's inner circle and a major fundraiser for the former governor.

Last year the college also spent $50,000 to hire Alfred Ronan, an ex-lawmaker whose former lobbying firm was caught up in a bid-rigging scheme involving imprisoned Gov. George Ryan's administration. The firm pleaded guilty and paid a $375,000 fine. Ronan was never charged.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Burdick said Ronan was hired again this year under an $85,000 contract as Harper's only outside lobbyist, and the school was not concerned about the past legal problem.

"We are very comfortable with the job he is doing," Burdick.

The reform campaign's Morrison said taxpayers should be aware their tax dollars are spent to lobby taxpayer-paid lawmakers to obtain other tax dollars.

"It all seems kind of circular," he said, noting Harper is not alone. The group's report outlines hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by scores of public bodies to lobby lawmakers.

Burdick bemoaned the situation as it applies to Harper.

"In a perfect world, public bodies should not have to spend public money to get through projects and laws which are really good for the people of the district," Burdick said.

As Harper was growing its lobby efforts last year, individual officials were also branching out into the world of campaign donating.

Harper Trustee Rita Canning was the sole donor to a campaign committee called "Friends of Harper" in late 2007 with a $50,000 personal contribution. Less than two weeks after the committee was created, $36,000 from the fund was recorded as going out to 13 lawmakers and a Senate Republican group on the same day, Dec. 11, 2007.

Canning, of Inverness, said the money was largely meant to push the four-year degree program. She said longtime Harper President Robert Breuder encouraged the formation of the committee.

Breuder could not be reached for comment Monday. He stepped down from Harper several months ago to head the College of DuPage.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to do this," Canning said. "But we don't live in a perfect world."

Canning said she was not involved in selecting who would receive the donations from the "Friends of Harper" committee.

Recipients included state representatives Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates - a chief supporter of the proposal - as well as state Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge and state Rep. Paul Froehlich of Schaumburg.

"I kind of know how the game is played," Canning said.

Canning said there was never any quid pro quo for the donations and that some of the recipients didn't support the four-year program.

"There (were) no promises," she said, "no guarantees - nothing like that."

Former veteran Harper Trustee Kris Jensen chairs the campaign committee, which is now out of money. Jensen, 83, retired from the board in 2005 and now sits on the college's foundation.

Jensen said Breuder supported the campaign fund, which she said also was set up to push other college interests

"I think it was a consensus that if we are asking legislators to help us," Jensen said, "it makes sense to make contributions."

The campaign donations are not referenced in the reform group's report, and Morrison acknowledged there is nothing illegal about elected trustees using their personal money to contribute to lawmakers. But he found the practice unusual.

"I think it is more indicative of the 'Wild West' system," he said of Illinois' relative lack of campaign donation laws and regulations.

Public-body lobbying


Harper College spent more on lobbyists last year than several state universities and other suburban community colleges.

Chicago Public Schools $211,446

City Colleges of Chicago $224,272

Harper College $126,000

College of Lake County $96,360

Northern Illinois University $85,000

Northeastern Illinois University $75,000

Elgin Community College $60,000

Joliet Junior College $56,000

Eastern Illinois University $50,079

Chicago State University $50,000

College of DuPage $47,840

Elgin School District U-46 $36,000

Illinois Community College Board $26,250

Rend Lakes Community College $19,900

Source: Illinois Campaign for Political Reform report

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