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When do we end pay-to-play's reach?

Friday, July 10, 2009
Daily Herald
by Daily Herald Editorial Board

Given that Illinois now is firmly weighed down by the label of being one of the most corrupt states with one recent governor in prison and another heading for trial, the news that the winners of several multimillion Cook County contracts last year also were county campaign contributors, sadly, was not all that surprising.

But it would be wrong for citizens to roll their eyes, complain about it and then forget. It would be wrong for Cook County officials to chalk it up to coincidence and move on. This is another opportunity for us to better this government and many others.

The Daily Herald and the Better Government Association recently examined 11 Cook County professional services contracts from 2008 that amounted to $11.8 million in work for the winning bidders. In only three out of the 11 did work go to the lowest bidder. Those who won the work, the investigation found, had paid a total of $208,178 in donations to county officials, their relatives and funds they control. Cook County Board President Todd Stroger got nearly $48,000 of that total.

Bruce Washington, the capital planning and development chief, said the contracts went to the best companies, adding he had "no idea" why the winners felt the need to donate.

Perhaps the winners of the lucrative contracts were the best for the job, but we've seen it all before: in state and county government, those who want work think they must pay to play.

It's frankly easy to spotlight Illinois and Cook County after all the stories the past few years about Stroger and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But what about all our other government bodies?

Is it a stretch to imagine contractors in other counties also have donated to county officials? Is it a stretch to imagine that in many counties lawyers contribute to judicial campaigns with the hope they maintain good relations with a judge they appear before? Is it a stretch to imagine that carpenters. electricians, plumbers and developers who want jobs and easy permitting processes feel it's good business practice to help local mayors and trustees? What about those who would put a billboard up or who seek to run the parking meter operation in a community?

It's time we all started asking those questions and digging for answers. Where there are concerns, we must push for solutions. After years of stories of pay-to-play shenanigans at the state level, legislators did approve a law that prohibits anyone with a contract worth more than $50,000 from donating to the state officeholder who awarded the work. That type of prohibition should be adopted in Cook County. It should be adopted by every other public body where the temptation exists to make a donation in the hope that it greases the way for work and pay. The problem probably isn't just in state and Cook County government. We have another chance here to fix our broken institutions. Let's grab it.

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