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Political donors in line to run health system
COOK COUNTY | 16 of 20 seeking 9 slots give to pols, including Stroger

Monday, April 28, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON

For decades, the Cook County hospital system has been crippled by politics -- doctors, administrators, funding and programs have long needed the approval of political overseers before becoming part of the structure.

But in a matter of weeks, the troubled health care operation will be taken over by a group of nine outsiders, described by many as independent and non-political.

Campaign finance records show that the 20 candidates to fill those nine slots have contributed more than $200,000 to various Illinois politicians in the last nine years. Of that, they've delivered more than $25,000 to Cook County officials -- half donated to campaign committees supporting County Board President Todd Stroger and various members of the County Board.

Later this week, Stroger is set to announce which nine of those 20 he wants to sit on the hospital board -- though he could also reject all 20. Then it will be up to the County Board to approve or deny Stroger's choices.

Those 20 were presented to Stroger by another "independent" board, whose members were approved by Stroger and the County Board as part of the 2008 budget process.

'Act of free speech'

A Stroger spokeswoman said politics won't determine who is selected, adding it's "incorrect and illegal" to "infer that there is a direct connection between contributions to elected officials and the names submitted."

"A donation to an elected official is an act of free speech," Stroger spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi said.

Many of the nominees come from health care fields and, records show, they often support politically tied health care groups or causes.

Norman Bobins, chairman emeritus of LaSalle Bank Corp., has given more than anyone else -- $56,698 to state politicians -- while Warren Batts, retired CEO at Premark International, has given $56,400.

"I have no political leverage or baggage," Batts said, laughing. "I'm doing this because I want to be helpful."

Exelon executive Andrea Zopp has given the most to Stroger -- $1,500 -- while Bobins has given to more county officials -- $10,700 -- than the others. Neither could be reached.

Only four candidates have never contributed campaign funds in Illinois: Quin Golden, formerly of the state Department of Public Health; attorney Barbara Hillman; Heather O'Donnell of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, and James Stukel, former president of the University of Illinois.

Commissioners Tony Peraica and Larry Suffredin are among those who say they're reserving judgment on the potential for politics to influence the board.

WHO GAVE MOST

Of the 20 finalists to sit on a new nine-member board to oversee Cook County hospital operations, 16 have contributed money to Illinois politicians. The top political contributors since 1999:

* Norman Bobins, chairman emeritus, LaSalle Bank, $56,698

* Warren Batts, retired CEO, Premark International, $56,400

* Andrea Zopp, Exelon executive, $16,100

* Sister Sheila Lyne, CEO, Mercy Hospital, $16,010

* Benn Greenspan, UIC, $15,800



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