Panel urges sweeping campaign funding, contracting reforms

  • "The leadership in Springfield will hopefully listen to us," said Illinois Reform Commission Chairman Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor who put former Gov. George Ryan in prison for corruption.

    "The leadership in Springfield will hopefully listen to us," said Illinois Reform Commission Chairman Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor who put former Gov. George Ryan in prison for corruption. George LeClaire | 2009

 
 
Published3/31/2009 10:27 AM

Campaign donors should be limited in how much they can give and contracting power needs to be isolated from political influence to help eradicate rampant corruption in Illinois, a reform commission proposed today.

Declaring the "burden of proof has shifted," commission Chairman Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor, argues the state's mostly wide-open campaign donation and contracting system can no longer be justified.

 

"The leadership in Springfield will hopefully listen to us," said Collins, who put former Gov. George Ryan in prison for corruption.

The Illinois Reform Commission was created by Gov. Pat Quinn in the wake of the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich on charges he shook down contractors, contenders for a U.S. Senate appointment and even the CEO of a children's hospital for large campaign donations.

Blagojevich denies any wrongdoing. A formal federal indictment is expected in the coming days.

Federal corruption investigations are ongoing into state, Cook County and Chicago government.

Collins told the Daily Herald editorial board that he knows even the best-planned campaign finance and contracting laws can't stop intent criminals.

"You can't legislate morality," he said.

However, the reform commission argues that tighter laws and regulations on the current wide-open campaign system will help deter corruption or at least make it more difficult.

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The proposal from the commission directly threatens the existing way of doing political business in Illinois.

Illinois' campaign laws have long allowed all potential contributors to donate any amount they want - one of only a handful of a states with no contribution limits.

A new law took effect this year that banned state contractors from donating to state officeholders. It came as pay-to-play allegations mounted against Blagojevich.

The reform commission wants to put Illinois campaign law more in line with federal law, limiting donations from individuals to $2,400 per election cycle and contributions from unions, businesses and interest groups to $5,000.

Under the proposal, contributions from registered lobbyists and trusts would be banned and outside groups would have to make donors public.

Additionally, campaigns would be required to report "bundlers" who hold fundraisers or gather several contributions from others that amount to more than $16,000.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Illinois has ranked high in disclosure, with most candidates required to electronically report donations before elections as well as twice a year. The commission's proposal would expand that to 'real time' reporting, requiring donations for statewide candidates of more than $1,000 and General Assembly candidates of more than $500 to be posted within five days of receipt.

For the first time, the commission also wants to see public financing of judicial campaigns in Illinois as a sort of "pilot" project.

Collins bemoaned the current system that allows lawyers to donate to the campaigns of state judges.

"If you talk about a conflict of interest," he said, "that strikes us as pretty direct."

The program could be funded by increasing registration fees to attorneys, Collins said.

On the contracting end, the commission is proposing rules to isolate procurement officials from political bosses and institute a watchdog agency to oversee state spending.

State lawmakers have set up their own reform commission that will likely release separate and perhaps different recommendations in the coming weeks. So far, legislative leaders have been critical of plans to limit contributions.

Collins says he is hoping public pressure and lawmakers who support the reform will push for change regardless.

"I'm not the only one who is going to be mad if this thing goes into the trash bin," he said of the commission's report.

The reform commission is set to released recommendations for other reforms, including perhaps term limits, later this month.

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