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Political Contribution Stories: Where's The Beef?

By vouchey in News on Apr 11, 2005 12:22PM

Now and then a Chicago newspaper runs an article detailing gynormous sums of money coursing through the bank account of a campaign fund connected to a powerful city official. The story is usually structured: "Big sum of money -> little-known ward organization -> powerful official connected to it -> city contractors contribute to fund". The implication, with no direct facts, is usually that the powerful official directs city contractors to their favored ward organization, and in return the contractor gets a job.

Today the Sun Times runs the traps on Chicago Housing Authority Chairman Terry Peterson and the 17th Ward Democratic Organization pointing out that numerous contractors made contributions to the campaign fund, and then received contracts from the CHA. And by the way, Terry Peterson lives in the 17th Ward, was once the ward's alderman and often attends 17th Ward fundraisers.

The Sun Times, which seems to have picked up most of its information from, "a joint investigation by the [Better Government Association] and a public housing residents' newspaper, Residents' Journal", notes that $250,000 of contributions in the past three years have come from CHA contractors. The inference by the article, " 'There's an awful lot of smoke here,'" according to the BGA chief investigator, is damning.

The article points out the continuing connection between campaign contributions and access to city government and city contracts. If you want to play ball in Chicago, the Sun Times article suggests, you need to pay up to somebody's campaign fund. Chicagoist loves these sorts of articles, because they tend to shine a light on the real engine of Chicago politics, campaign contributions.

But the article skips over a few facts, and in doing so makes some unwarranted suggestions. The most important being that city contractors may legally contribute up to $1,500 to elected city officials - to say nothing of Democratic Ward Organizations. So, even if the contributions were directly to Peterson (which they aren’t, and this isn't about a candidate's campaign fund), they would be in the clear. Second, is that many of 17th Ward's contributors include white shoe law firms like Ungaretti & Harris, as well as LaSalle Bank, two institutions almost paranoid about breaking the law, and that tend to shy away from political controversy. Finally, a glance at the January 2005 semi-annual contribution report for the 17th Ward shows that many of the contributions center around September 13 and October 15 and are multiples of $150 and $1,500. The dates are likely fundraiser dates, and the amounts are typical Illinois fundraising sponsor levels. Fundraisers are normally announced months in advance, and it is likely the companies were planning to give regardless of pending contracts.

So why would they give in the first place? Today, with a few exceptions, companies and contractors no longer make political contributions with expectation of a direct pay-out. Instead they give to ensure access and visibility with high-ranking officials. While Chicagoist is not familiar with the fundraising activities of the 17th Ward, many Chicago political organizations hold regular fundraisers (typically one in early Spring, and one in late Fall) to ensure not only a steady flow of campaign cash, but also to avoid any appearance of quid pro quo.

It would seem that, ultimately, today’s Sun Times article is a case of a reporter getting research handed to them on a silver platter. While there might be some legitimate concerns behind these contributions, there’s nothing convincing in this report. And if the Sun Times were to do a story on campaign contributions, why would it focus on a relatively small fish like Terry Peterson? Any Sun Times reports out there got answers?