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
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
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
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
Copyright © 2002, Chicago