Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Comptroller: "Follow the money"

The public, the media and anyone with Internet access has a new tool to search for connections between people who donate money to political campaigns and people who win state contracts. Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes’ office designed a new Web site, called Open Book, which combines records from his office with records from the State Board of Elections’ office. That allows people to search state contractors side by side with campaign contributors.

Hynes said at a Statehouse news conference Tuesday that he also hopes the new search engine will apply more pressure on lawmakers, particularly Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones Jr., to advance ethics legislation drafted by Hynes. Known as House Bill 1, the measure would ban and criminalize so-called pay-to-play politics (a.k.a. granting state contracts in exchange for political campaign contributions). It gained unanimous support in the House and lined up 46 sponsors in the Senate, but it’s never been called for a vote.

“In the absence of a statutory ban on contributions from those who have state contracts, what we can do is create more transparency, more awareness, better information for watchdog groups, the media, citizens, so that people know who’s doing what,” Hynes said. “And perhaps that information will create pressure to enact the right legislation that will prohibit it, or, as one of my colleagues said, shame people out of not awarding contracts to contributors or getting contributions from contractors.”

A search takes a few seconds and starts with entering a person’s name or business in the blank. The database comes up two columns, one for state contracts and one for political contributions. It also lists the person’s or company’s address and how much was donated to any political campaign in each fiscal year back to 1999. It does this by tapping into the comptroller’s accounting records of contract information and into campaign disclosure reports filed twice a year with the State Board of Elections. Previously, matching contractors with campaign donors required multiple searches on the separate Web sites of each state agency.

“Open Book creates a one-stop shop where you plug in one name, one field and get all of those answers at once,” said David Morrison, deputy director of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which started one of the first searchable, online databases for campaign contributions with Kent Redfield, director of the Sunshine Project for campaign finance research based at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “It’s a really terrific system that I think has the potential of unleashing thousands of ants all over the state to crawl over the problem with pay-to-play contracting,” Morrison said. The Chicago-based watchdog group the Better Government Association also came to support the unveiling of the site.

Redfield added that more disclosure is important to prevent conflicts of interest, whether actual or perceived, from eating away at public confidence in the system. He says the costs of corruption include turning people away from participating in government and wasting tax dollars to curry political favors.

Then Redfield pointed directly to the governor, who has said in the past that he favors more sweeping ethics reform than the measure urged by Hynes. The governor’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Rausch, said Blagojevich supports anything that increases transparency to state government, in terms of the comptroller’s new Web site. But as far as supporting the ethics reform measure backed by Hynes, Blagojevich is holding out for a measure that he deems more comprehensive.

In response to Hynes’ statement that House Bill 1 could be the first step with more legislation following, Rausch said, “Why not do it right the first time? Why set the bar low? It’s taken many, many, many years to pass the first round of ethics reform in 2003. We shouldn’t squander the opportunity to do something sweeping and across the board now.”

Redfield says the governor still could do more. “The governor could do what the comptroller has done through executive order this afternoon. It should not be sufficient for the governor’s spokesman to say, ‘Well, we’re in favor of broad reform.’ These are the sorts of things that should be in law, that can be done by executive order.”

Hynes and the other constitutional officers issued executive orders to ban campaign contributions from people holding state contracts that are worth more than $10,000, as in Hynes' case. Secretary of State Jesse White said his office also prohibits campaign contributions from his own employees and the employees’ families.

For more background on previous attempts to reform state ethics laws, check out an April 2005 column by Pat Guinane, former Statehouse bureau chief for Illinois Issues.

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