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Rezko Trial Highlights Need for Basic Campaign Finance Reform

The on-going prosecution of Illinois real estate developer Antoin “Tony” Rezko has been a source of much drama. But anyone who is familiar with Illinois’s political contributions laws knows there’s more to the scandal than meets the eye…

New York lost its governor to scandal; Illinois may not be far behind.  The on-going prosecution of Illinois real estate developer Antoin “Tony” Rezko, as the result of the Justice Department’s Operation Board Game investigation, has been a source of much drama.  But anyone who is familiar with Illinois’s political contributions laws knows there’s more to the scandal than meets the eye. The problem is not just what was allegedly illegal; the bigger issue is what is legal in Illinois.

All the hype aside, the Rezko scandal should bring into focus the clear failings of Illinois’s campaign finance laws.  As I pointed out in testimony submitted to the state legislature last year, Illinois is one of only three states that lacks any type of campaign contribution limits.  This gives big donors the potential to buy an election by writing a single hefty check.  Illinois also lacks pay-to-play restrictions which would curtail contributions from those seeking contracts with or permits from the state. 

Reasonable contribution limits and tailored pay-to-play regulations that keep lobbyists and/or state contractors from giving large sums to state officials and candidates for state office have been found to be perfectly constitutional by our nation’s courts because they curb corruption and reduce the public perception of politics as a pay-for-access enterprise.  For example, 21 states have laws that regulate contributions from lobbyists and 7 states have laws that regulate contributions from state contractors.  Finally, Illinois could benefit from offering candidates the option of public financing so that they would not be beholden to private donors-not unlike Senator Durbin’s proposed Fair Elections Now Act which would provide public funding for Congressional candidates.  The Illinois General Assembly currently has bills pending which make all three reforms reality.

As US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has stated, Mr. Rezko was allegedly the ringleader of a “pay-to-play scheme on steroids.”  According to the indictment, Rezko conspired to take control of a board that oversees Illinois’s $30 billion teachers’ pension.  He also took control of the state board responsible for handing out the permits for hospital expansion and construction projects.  Rezko now stands accused of abusing these boards to extort fees and campaign contributions from companies that wanted investments from the pension fund or permits.

In one case, Rezko is accused of requesting that a $1.5 million dollar political contribution be made to the sitting Governor of Illinois by a company seeking to manage state pension funds.  This type of monstrously big contribution would be illegal in most states even without the alleged pay-to-play extortion.  By means of comparison, most states and the federal government have individual contribution limits that are below $2,500 per election.

Illinois could learn from the experiences of Connecticut, which saw its previous Governor, John Rowland, sentenced to jail time for a similar pay-to-play scandal.  Similar to the situation in Illinois, in Connecticut the state contractors who were convicted for giving illegal gifts to Governor Rowland had for years given him far more in legal campaign contributions.  Connecticut responded to this scandal with meaningful reforms.

Now Connecticut lobbyists and state contractors can no long give or solicit contributions for legislative and statewide candidates.  In addition Connecticut has public financing so that future candidates won’t have to rely on private money to run for office.  In recent estimates, some 80 percent of state legislators say they plan to use the public funding system in Connecticut to run for office in November. Illinois would benefit immeasurably from adopting similar reforms.

While a dishonest man will try to game any system, Illinois’s legal structure for high ticket political campaigns is particularly easy to corrupt.  It would be far harder for a single donor to buy influence if all donors were subject to reasonable contribution limits.  And it would be far harder to extort campaign contributions from companies applying for state permits if reasonable pay-to-play restrictions were in place to protect the companies from this type of pressure. Most importantly, candidates would not feel compelled to be in arms race for private money if public financing were an option in the state.

Illinois already has a black eye from the corruption scandal that landed former Governor Ryan in jail. Let’s hope that the citizens and lawmakers of Illinois will seize on this debacle as the impetus to change their campaign finance laws so that the state will no longer be synonymous with corruption and graft.