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U.S. probe indicts `political culture'
Many blur the line between campaign, government duties

By Rick Pearson and Matt O'Connor, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporters Ray Long, Andrew Zajac and Rudolph Bush contributed to this report
Published April 4, 2002

When the federal government indicted Gov. George Ryan's campaign committee and two of his former top aides, it also took direct aim at an anything goes political system that for generations has relied on subtle--and sometimes not so subtle--coercion of public employees to provide funding and fieldwork.

"This is an indictment of a political culture," said political scientist Kent Redfield of the University of Illinois at Springfield. "It reinforces the attitudes among those people who believe all state workers are hacks and all politicians are corrupt."

A day after the indictments were announced, Democrats and Republicans wasted little time trading shots over who was more culpable in using public funds to further their political futures and who was more likely to clean up government corruption.

Yet privately, many political insiders said the campaign-related indictments would have a chilling effect on both political parties in the fall races, as each side groped for ways to avoid any appearance that their operations were tainted by misuse of public funds and resources.

For decades, a wink-and-a-nod understanding has been pervasive at all levels of Illinois politics. Politicians looked for ways to advance their careers on the cheap, taking advantage of what had been a system with few rules, lax enforcement and no incentive to make reforms.

Top government workers routinely would explain they were on a "coffee break" when they offered lower-level workers the "opportunity" to buy fundraising tickets to help their political patrons. Hundreds of state employees would take a late "lunch hour" to attend midday political rallies in the Capitol rotunda.

Many government workers understand that political duties are an accepted price they must pay for their job, whether it means ponying up for a fund-raising ticket, staffing a phone bank or working a precinct on Election Day. Often, they give up vacation time and comp time from taxpayer-funded jobs to work on political campaigns directed by the bosses to whom they owe their livelihood.

But often such activities by Illinois politicians blatantly cross the line.

Only last month, former Calumet City Mayor Jerry Genova, an unsuccessful 1998 candidate for the Democratic nomination for state treasurer, was sentenced to 5 years in federal prison for taking kickbacks and using city workers to help his political campaigns on city time.

Former Chicago Congressman Dan Rostenkowski pleaded guilty in April 1996 to federal mail fraud charges, using taxpayer funds to buy gifts for friends and for using congressional staffers for personal and political errands.

The practice of ghost-payrolling--the hiring of employees who perform little or no governmental work but do political tasks--has been pervasive in Illinois. A decade ago, federal authorities mounted a probe called "Operation Haunted Hall" to exorcise ghost payrollers from city government.

In the 1970s, then Democratic Gov. Dan Walker placed several political operatives in ghost jobs at state commissions. One of them allegedly was self-styled reformer Pat Quinn, now the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. Quinn has long disputed the allegation.

Some political insiders said the new federal charges mean campaigns must become more scrupulous in trying to separate the official from the political. And rather than representing reform, it could mean campaigns may become more expensive--and even more dependent on special interest money--if they are forced to hire a full-time professional political staff that is totally divorced from the cheaper "volunteer" force of government laborers.

Political and governmental commingling has "been pervasive at the state and local level, in southern Illinois, in Springfield and in Chicago for generations," Redfield said. "The standards have been low. If somebody is doing political work on state time, it elicits a yawn from everybody."

The federal charges filed against Scott Fawell, Ryan's former chief of staff and 1998 campaign manager, included allegations that he ordered taxpayer-funded workers to staff campaigns for the legislature, the presidency and Ryan's bid for governor, then rewarded their efforts with raises and new government jobs.

But the indictment alleges that Fawell went far beyond the loose standards of Illinois politics by using state funds to compensate workers for their political work as well as requiring subordinates to falsify time sheets and destroy records in a coverup.

Most campaigns attempt to create a firewall between the political and governmental duties of their staff. Public employees are usually taken off the government payroll and paid by campaigns for their political work to create at least an appearance of a clean break.

But the indictments have some campaign consultants fretting over whether the traditional lines defining where government work ends and political work begins will still be considered distinct enough to pass prosecutorial muster.

"We work in a political environment. We work 12 to14 hours a day. It's a political process to pass a bill," said Greg Durham, a spokesman for Rep. Lee Daniels of Elmhurst, the House Republican leader and chairman of the state GOP. "But the line is clear that you can't work on campaigns or make signs or brochures while being paid by the taxpayers. If the scrutiny is going to be higher, bring it on."

It was Daniels' House Republican Campaign Committee that turned over to the federal government last fall documents of payments made to Unistat, a campaign election list and direct-mail firm owned by former state legislator Roger Stanley. The indictment charged that Fawell steered a taxpayer-funded contract to a company--identified by a well-placed source as Stanley's--in exchange for campaign funds and payments to himself and campaign workers.

The federal investigators told attorneys for the House Republican campaign fund that it was not a target or a subject of an investigation, Durham said.

"We got a request for records. We put them in a box and sent them to [investigators]. That's the last we heard," Daniels said. "No House Republicans, nor is the House Republican Campaign Committee, under any kind of investigation."

The 80-page indictment detailed how Citizens for Ryan, Fawell and former Ryan aide Richard Juliano routinely used employees in the secretary of state's office when Ryan ran it to do campaign work on state time.

The charges included the allegation that Fawell, during the summer of 1996, promised "numerous" secretary of state office employees "work-related benefits and other compensation" as a reward for their work for Republicans in House races.

The charges also allege state-issued vehicles, computers, cell phones and quantities of office supplies and equipment were improperly used in Ryan's 1998 governor's campaign to cut costs.

Even an industrial shredder bought with taxpayer funds by the secretary of state's office was diverted to the campaign and used as part of what prosecutors allege was the wholesale destruction of records linking state employees to the 1998 campaign effort.

After the shredding was completed, numerous garbage bags full of shredded material were hauled away to ensure law enforcement didn't learn of the destruction of documents, authorities charged.

Fawell also directed campaign employees to use "wiping" equipment to delete campaign-related materials from computer files, the indictment charged.

Fawell was alleged to have lied in a grand jury appearance in 1998 about his knowledge of how employees, under pressure to raise campaign money, sold commercial driver's licenses in return for campaign contributions and bribes.

The indictment alleged that Fawell enforced mandatory political fundraising goals for departments within the secretary of state's office and that supervisors imposed fundraising quotas on employees.

"Obviously running for public office costs money, but we never want anybody to feel pressured to do anything. It's not worth it to us," Fawell told the grand jury.

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune

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