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Study: In Cook Co., contracts, campaign donations intertwined
By Rob Olmstead | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 7/6/2009 12:03 AM

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First of two parts. Tomorrow: The bidding process and why county bypassed the lowest bid in five of the 11 bids.

Call it one heck of a coincidence.

Cook County officials do.

It's complete coincidence, they say, that in 2008, all 11 contracts in certain specialty areas were in some way, large or small, tied to political donors.

A joint investigation by the Daily Herald and the Better Government Association has found that the companies that received the 11 contracts worth $11.8 million in all accounted for $208,178 in campaign contributions to county officials, their relatives or funds they control. Cook County Board President Todd Stroger alone got $47,920 of those donations.

That's a complete coincidence, say county officials, who maintain that they award the contracts - professional service contracts through the Department of Capital Planning and Development - based solely on who's best for the job.

"I have no idea" why the companies feel the need to donate, said Bruce Washington, head of the department.

"No," responded Stroger spokesman Gene Mullins, when asked if there was some connection between the donations and the awards.

Critics of the department say they find it hard to believe it's complete coincidence.

"Maybe it's also coincidence that day follows night and the sun sets in the west," scoffed Andy Shaw, executive director of the BGA. "This investigation, like so many others, confirms the toxic 'pay to play' culture that infects every level of Illinois government. This is a microcosm of county government that, like a reliable poll, accurately reflects the way business is conducted."

Even one commissioner - Bartlett Republican Tim Schneider - doubted that donations do not play a role in the awarding of contracts.

"In general, Cook County continues to be the playground for the politically connected," said Schneider, who did not receive donations related to any of the 11 projects.

Cindy Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, concurred.

"Once again, we see the cost of doing business in Illinois," she said.

Working with Patrick Rehkamp, chief investigator of the Better Government Association, the Daily Herald examined each of 11 specialty contracts issues in 2008, ranging from expansion of a parking lot at Stroger Hospital to a countywide elevator modernization project. The contracts were chosen because they fall in a class of contracts that the county can approve without accepting the lowest bidder. Among the findings:

• Political donations were involved in each case ranging from as little as $675 in two separate donations to Stroger and the 8th Ward campaign fund he controls to $43,850 to numerous recipients, including nearly $10,000 to Stroger.

• Cook County commissioners often voted on project awards despite having received political donations from the firms to which they were awarding business.

• In only three of the 11 projects did the lowest bidder win the contract. Three projects attracted only one bid, and five went to someone other than the lowest bidder.

• County Board President Todd Stroger - who supervises the head of the Capital Planning and Development Department - has received $47,920 in campaign donations over the last 12 years from companies or employees that won business through the personal service contracts. His late father, the county president before him, got $63,400, and the 8th Ward campaign fund Todd Stroger now controls received $19,795.

• Commissioner Bill Beavers or his daughter Darcel received $16,075 from the firms or employees involved in the contracts. Beavers personally voted to approve a contract for a parking lot design in which the winning bidder - the highest of three bidders - gave his campaigns $10,000. He even sponsored a measure attempting to resurrect the award after other commissioners later axed it to help solve a budget crisis. Beavers could not be reached for comment.

• Commissioner Deborah Sims received $9,028 from the firms. She personally voted to approve a $3.2 million garage contract to companies that have given her $4,265 over the years. The bid was nearly $700,000 more than the second-lowest bidder, the architecture firm of Holabird & Root, which was rated "excellent" by the Capital Planning and Development Department that assessed all the bids. Sims also could not be reached for comment.

Bruce Washington, the head of the Capital Planning and Development department, said campaign donations play no role in the awarding of the bids. Instead, he said, three staff members assess bids strictly on which promises the best result at a reasonable price. The three then submit their recommendation to him. So far, he said, he has never overruled their recommendation, although he has the power to do so. Likewise, Stroger has never overruled Washington's recommendation, although he has the power to do so as well.

Shaw emphasized that the BGA is more concerned about the relationship of the donations to the issuance of contracts than about their size.

"The issue's not the size of the donations - it's the fact that 'pay to play' tilts a playing field that should be level by giving the payers an inside track to the contract playing field, even if they're more expensive and less qualified," he said.

Canary also acknowledged that the results don't necessarily mean there's a "quid pro quo" relationship between bidders wanting to do business with the county and the awarding of contracts.

"I think it illustrates how insiders recognize this cost to doing business (with government) and one hand helps the other," said Canary. "I think that the bottom line is you need to do one of two things. You need to either create a program where contractors are forbidden from giving political contributions, or else you need to set political contribution (limits) across the board that are low enough that you don't have this perceived conflict."