In 2009, with another governor ensnared in scandal, Illinois’ Democratic legislative leaders put together a package of laws they promised would begin to reform the state’s culture of corruption.
One of the biggest items would establish limits on campaign contributions — which Illinois was among the last states to adopt.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who sponsored the legislation, called it a way to “help restore public confidence in Illinois government.”
State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, the sponsor in the Senate, said the moves established “historic contribution caps, real disclosure requirements and strict enforcement measures.”
Now, 11 years later, Madigan and Harmon are using a loophole written into the reform bill to raise millions in campaign money beyond the usual limits the legislation set.
Their Republican colleagues also have blown past the limits.
The four men have collected a combined $44 million over the contribution limits.
They then doled out most of it to favored candidates, records show.
The reforms initially limited individual campaign contributions to $5,000 per politician. Corporations and unions could give no more than $10,000. And contributions from political action committees were limited to $50,000.
“As a leader in the fight against radical Republicans and the party of Donald Trump, I will not surrender any tool to elect Democrats to stop them,” said Harmon, who succeeded John Cullerton in January as Illinois Senate president.
The tool Harmon referred to is known as the millionaire’s exemption. It allows all candidates in a legislative race to exceed the campaign limits and raise unlimited funds if any candidate in their race puts more than $100,000 in personal funds into the campaign.
Harmon defended the millionaire’s exemption a decade ago as a way to level the playing field for politicians facing challenges from ultra-wealthy, self-funded candidates.
None of the four top lawmakers has ever been challenged by a self-funded millionaire.
Harmon isn’t even facing re-election until 2022. He began exceeding the limits within weeks of Cullerton’s announcement last fall he’d retire.
On Dec. 4, Harmon lent his campaign $100,001. That triggered the exemption. Later that day, his Friends of Don Harmon campaign fund accepted a total of $527,300 from unions, lawyers, corporations and others. Of that, $131,600 came in above the limits that had applied a day earlier, before Harmon’s loan to his campaign.
After being elected Senate president, Harmon began parceling out the extra cash to favored Senate Democratic candidates and committees.
According to the fund’s latest campaign-finance reports, Harmon has raised nearly $1.3 million in contributions that exceed the limits — about one-third of the $3.9 million he raised during 2019 and 2020.
Among the contributors exceeding the limits were three PACs tied to labor unions, which gave him $900,000; marijuana industry investor Stephen Schuler and his philanthropist wife Mary Jo, who together gave $75,000; and a total of $100,000 from three gaming companies.
The state’s two top Republican lawmakers, who were harsh critics of the reform effort, which they said at the time didn’t go far enough, also are cashing in.
“There’s more holes in this legislation than a ton of Swiss cheese,” state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said during a Senate floor debate in 2009. “Supporting this is doing nothing more but give authority to a few individuals who control party purse strings, who can raise money and shift campaign contributions.”
Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, also spoke out in 2012 when the General Assembly extended the millionaire’s exemption to instances in which outside groups independently spend more than $100,000 advocating for or against particular candidates.
“Have you forgotten the crimes of Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan? Have you forgotten how large campaign contributions to politicians made Illinois a national laughingstock?” Durkin asked during the 2012 floor debate. “This is a bad law and a bad idea.”
The reforms followed nearly a decade of scandal that sent ex-Gov. George Ryan to federal prison and then former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of crimes that included trying to sell an appointment to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
Since their failed opposition to the reforms, Brady became Senate Republican leader in 2017, and Durkin became head of the House Republicans in 2013.
On Oct. 5, 2016, an independent political committee backed by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner spent $101,843 on ads backing Durkin’s re-election. The group, Turnaround Illinois, was funded by Republican Rauner and billionaire investor and former Chicago Tribune owner Sam Zell to help candidates who sided with Rauner and “oppose those who stand in the way.”
Beginning the day after the exemption was triggered and throughout that October, Durkin’s campaign raised $12 million from Rauner, his wife Diana, Rauner’s campaign committee and $5 million from Chicago hedge fund founder Kenneth Griffin — all well above the limits.
Durkin ran unopposed that November and didn’t need the $17 million for his own legislative race. He sent $14.3 million to other Republican candidates for the General Assembly and gave more than $4 million to the Illinois Republican Party.
In 2018, Durkin took advantage of the loophole again, now with help from a Washington group, the Republican State Leadership Committee. The RSLC spent $105,000 on a website promoting Durkin’s candidacy.
With the fundraising limits once again removed, Durkin raised $6 million from Griffin, then gave $5.7 million to the House Republican Organization and $525,000 to the Illinois Republican Party.
This June, Durkin breached the limits a third time, records show, after the RSLC spent $105,000 to promote his campaign.
He already has taken in $300,000 from the Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC this year, far above the $57,800 maximum for PACs.
Durkin campaign spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis said he “has complied with the finance laws passed by the Democratic majorities. He stands by his statements from 2012 and will continue to follow the law.”
Durkin’s ability to raise unusually large sums might have helped his party pick up four House seats in 2016, keeping Madigan from getting the Democratic “super-majority” that made it easier to override vetoes when Rauner was governor.
After Brady became Senate Republican leader in 2017, he took advantage of the millionaire’s loophole the month before the 2018 general election. He gave his campaign a $100,001 loan on Oct. 1, 2018, declared his race was self-funded and set the stage for unlimited contributions.
Griffin then gave Brady $1.5 million, and fellow billionaire Richard Uihlein gave $270,000.
Brady, unopposed in the general election, helped finance Republican campaigns for the Illinois Senate, directing more than $2.5 million to the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee and $327,000 among six GOP candidates facing close races. Two won.
In December 2018, Brady’s campaign repaid his loan, records show.
“One of my responsibilities is to support Republican candidates for the Senate and to work to elect more Republicans to the Illinois Senate,” Brady said, responding to questions. “All our fundraising and financial activities are conducted openly and legally.”
Once limits were lifted in these races, no single donor gave more than Griffin, who contributed millions to support Republican legislators.
“Leadership in Springfield has failed to improve our schools, end decades-long corruption and stop the pattern of reckless spending that threatens to bankrupt our state,” Griffin said in response to questions.
Uihlein declined to be interviewed.
On Aug. 16, 2018, Madigan contributed exactly $1 above the $100,000 trigger and notified the Illinois State Board of Elections he was “self-funding” his unopposed reelection race. Madigan then used his district campaign committee as a depository for contributions he could disburse to other Democrats.
Madigan raised nearly $12 million more than normally allowed, sending $5.9 million to the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Democratic Majority — funds he also controls and uses to distribute cash to favored legislative candidates. He also spent more than $2.1 million on payroll and other expenses for his political organization.
Democrats gained seven House seats in 2018, restoring Madigan’s super-majority.
In August 2019, Madigan again gave himself $100,001 and has since raised more than $6 million in over-the-limits funds for this fall’s election.
“Rauner attempted to leverage his personal fortune to bully lawmakers into enacting an extreme agenda that would have padded the profits of big corporations and further enrich billionaire CEOs,” Madigan said in a written statement in response to questions. “Because I stood in his way, the vast majority of this spending targeted me personally.”
Since breaking the usual limits, Madigan’s three biggest contributors have been union and construction industry PACs, which collectively gave him more than $8 million during the three-year period, far above the maximum the three PACs normally could give.
“We saw just constant attacks on union wages, on rights at work, on workplace protections, all under the guise of workplace reforms,” said Ed Maher, spokesman for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, which is affiliated with two of Madigan’s top contributors.
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the exceptions to the limits “were not meant to be offensive mechanisms, used proactively to gain leverage by allowing your supporters to make unlimited contributions on your behalf.”
The repeated use of loopholes is “unseemly,” said Christine Radogno, Senate Republican leader until 2017. “Stop playing the game that we have limits because we really don’t.”
Chuck Neubauer and Sandy Bergo are reporters for the Better Government Association.