Gov. Rod Blagojevich's aggressive fundraising machine collected hundreds of $25,000 checks in a campaign effort that dwarfed his predecessors', and most of these big givers ended up benefiting from his administration.
A Tribune examination of all 235 of those donations shows that three of every four came from individuals, companies or interest groups who got something -- from lucrative state contracts to coveted state board appointments to favorable policy and regulatory actions.Donors interviewed said they gave to show their support for the first Democratic governor in a quarter-century or to get the attention of the new regime. But the Tribune found a pattern that raises new questions about possible links between campaign donations and government actions.
While campaigning as a reformer who would end Illinois' "pay-to-play" reputation, Blagojevich relied heavily on donors with a stake in his administration. He proposed a cap on campaign contributions but has done little to pass the proposal.
Illinois is one of just five states with no limits on campaign contributions. Most states prohibit individuals or companies from giving as much as $25,000 to political candidates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A spokeswoman for the governor flatly denied any suggestion that Blagojevich traded favors for donations, as did an official with the governor's campaign fund, Friends of Blagojevich.
"Absolutely not," Doug Scofield, a top campaign adviser, wrote in an e-mail response to written questions.
"There is no connection between campaign contributions and the awarding of contracts or jobs," he said. "The amount of the contribution is a decision made by the contributor alone."
Although there are some contributors who gave even larger amounts, for most the $25,000 -- about the price of a new Toyota Camry -- was their largest political donation ever. Political insiders and fundraisers interviewed acknowledge it was an amount pursued by the campaign from the early stages of Blagojevich's first run for governor.
A Chicago engineering firm and its affiliate wrote two $25,000 checks in 2006, and within months won $25.4 million in new state business. A state lawmaker got a six-figure state job, one of more than four dozen donors awarded jobs or appointments by Blagojevich. One Chicago pharmacist previously told the Tribune -- and law enforcement -- that his $25,000 check to the governor's campaign was the price tag for fixing a critical state audit of his drugstore, an allegation the fundraiser who solicited the check adamantly denies.
Breaking down donations
All told, Blagojevich's campaign has raised more than $58 million since 2000, with nearly $6 million coming in donations of exactly $25,000. Those contributions -- 235 in all -- came from 166 different donors. Those donors gave an additional $8.6 million in amounts larger and smaller than $25,000.
For this report, the Tribune examined all donors who gave Blagojevich at least one $25,000 check, a snapshot of the governor's massive and unprecedented campaign effort.
While Blagojevich has received 235 checks for exactly $25,000, his immediate predecessor, George Ryan -- now in federal prison on corruption charges -- received only 14 since beginning his run for governor. Aides to former Republican Govs. Jim Edgar and James Thompson, who benefited from their own powerful fundraising machines, agreed that $25,000 checks were unusual.
Blagojevich has raised more than any other governor in Illinois history, according to state campaign finance records. It took his GOP predecessor, Ryan, 30 years of campaigning for state offices to raise $40 million.
Of the 235 donations to Blagojevich, the Tribune found 175 came from companies, unions, trade groups or individuals who somehow benefited under his administration. More than three dozen are repeat contributors to political campaigns.
The attorney's case
Chicago attorney Myron Cherry, a longtime supporter of Democratic politicians, sat on Blagojevich's finance committee from the early stages. He said he thought $25,000 was a target sought by the campaign at some fundraising events. Cherry made two $25,000 donations to Blagojevich.
"I remember going to one fundraiser -- there may have been others -- where $25,000 was published as a figure to be a co-host or something," Cherry said. "It was on the invitation."