“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
That famous question, posed by Sen. Howard Baker during 1973 congressional hearings on the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal, has been asked of political leaders embroiled in crises for the four-plus decades since then.
The latest is Gov. Pat Quinn, whose administration is still reeling from an Illinois Department of Transportation hiring scandal a year after the Better Government Association broke the story.
What did the governor know, and when did he know it?
When we started investigating an elaborate scheme to reward political cronies by circumventing court-ordered state hiring rules, Quinn’s aides at IDOT and in the governor’s office told us they couldn’t say anything.
Then they stopped returning phone calls and emails.
And only after we confronted former IDOT secretary Ann Schneider with a rolling camera did she finally agree to an interview.
It turned out to be her undoing because, after claiming she had no knowledge of illegal patronage hiring, we learned her own stepdaughter landed a job at the agency under dubious circumstances.
Schneider resigned a short time later.
Meanwhile, the governor’s aides refused our requests to make Quinn available for an interview.
At public appearances, Quinn said a handful of rogue IDOT employees, including Schneider, were rigging the system.
Then Schneider climbed out from under the bus to accuse Quinn’s office, in a Sun-Times interview, of pushing “the vast majority” of the hires at her agency.
Quinn’s rejoinder: It was Schneider’s responsibility to make sure the hires his office recommended were legal.
Predictably, the campaign of Quinn’s Republican opponent, Bruce Rauner, jumped into the fray through a spokesman, who quipped: “There’s no one left to fire but Quinn himself.”
That’s a good line, but delivered by a “spokesman”—not the candidate himself, who generally limits his media availability to carefully scripted events.
Quinn’s had a long career in the public spotlight — hundreds of decisions and actions to scrutinize — and while we still have questions about IDOT and a second scandal surrounding an anti-violence grant program, Illinois voters know him pretty well.
Rauner, the ultra-wealthy former venture capitalist, is a much bigger mystery, and apparently his camp would rather keep it that way.
It’s also harder for investigative reporters and watchdogs to dig into the mostly-private dealings of an enormously successful businessman than a career politician.
But Rauner’s done business with government over the years, and that leaves us with questions about:
- Reported campaign contributions of $300,000 to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell around the same time one of Rauner’s companies was winning lucrative pension contracts in the Keystone State.
- A Rauner-connected firm paying political fixer Stuart Levine $25,000 a month while Rauner was soliciting business from an Illinois pension board Levine sat on.
- A BGA investigation of a state contract for healthcare services at youth prisons in Illinois that went to a Rauner-connected company with a questionable track record.
- And the BGA’s recent look at Rauner’s contributions to grassroots GOP organizations around Illinois as he was preparing for a GOP primary against three better-known candidates.
We wanted to talk to Rauner about those stories but he refused.
So here’s our bottom line:
We expected more transparency and open dialogue from Quinn, who spent decades cultivating the image of a populist, good government reformer.
And if Rauner’s truly an “outsider” qualified to clean up the mess made by the “insiders,” we expect him to be more honest and forthcoming about his business dealings and tax returns, and to answer questions about transactions the Quinn campaign calls “pay to play” and influence peddling.
Given the recent history of the office both men are running for, Illinois voters are entitled, at the very least, to straight answers from the two men who want to govern the state.
Sadly, neither has been candid enough up to now.