By Dana Heupel
During Roland Burris’ first full fiscal year as Illinois attorney general, more than half of the money his office awarded for outside legal work went to campaign contributors, according to a book published by Illinois Issues magazine and the Springfield State Journal-Register.
In FY 1992, Burris’ office issued roughly $4 million in outside legal contracts to individuals and law firms, according to the book, Illinois For Sale, which was published in 1997. More than $2.25 million of that amount went to contributors to Burris’ campaign or to the main Democratic fundraising committee.
None of the outside legal contracts were required to be put out for bids by competing law firms. Burris’ office was allowed to award the contracts without consideration over whether the state received the best price for the legal work.
At the time, Burris’ office denied they were “pay to play” contracts.
“There was an even greater number [of contractors] who didn’t contribute,” responded Burris’ spokesman, Ernie Slottag. “I’m not sure we read the perception the same. It’s the question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.”
According to the book, the bulk of the legal contracts were for work performed for various state agencies under then-Gov. Jim Edgar’s office, such as the Illinois Department of Transportation, which hired outside attorneys for such work as land condemnation cases. However, the contracts were approved by Burris’ attorney general’s office, which has constitutional authority over the state’s legal work.
Slottag at the time agreed that the attorney general’s office had to sign off on legal contracts from other agencies but said “a lot of people have input” into the process.
However, when told of the legal contracts, then-state Sen. Judy Baar Topinka, R-Riverside, responded at the time, “It looks to me like we’re padding the payroll with contributing law firms.”
Illinois For Sale was based on a series of news stories published by the State Journal-Register in 1993 and 1994 that examined the relationship between campaign contributions and state contracts. The newspaper compared a database of all campaign contributions made to statewide officeholders during the year before and the year after the 1992 statewide election against a database of all contracts awarded during the first full fiscal year after the officeholders were sworn in. It found that at least $1 of every $3 the officeholders awarded in contracts went to campaign contributors.
The newspaper series won the prestigious national George Polk Award for political reporting in 1994.
“Pay to play” has surfaced as a national issue with the arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is accused of seeking campaign contributions from prospective state contractors and plotting to sell to the highest bidder his appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama was elected president. Since his arrest, Blagojevich has appointed Burris, who served as vice chairman of the governor’s transition team, although Senate leaders have said they will not seat him.