Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown (left) greets a supporter ar a campaign fundraiser. She is among the many officials receiving contributions from their workers. (Photo by E.J. Rublev)

Everybody’s doing it. Throughout Illinois, government workers are bankrolling the campaigns of elected officials. The practice is widespread, the money involved sometimes immense, and the implications potentially troubling: While, by law, anyone can contribute any amount, critics wonder if more than the democratic spirit motivates public employees to give to officials.

The Chicago Reporter pieced together partial lists of Cook County, state of Illinois, and city of Chicago employees, then matched them with Illinois State Board of Elections documents from 1999 through the end of 2003. The Reporter identified nearly 4,000 public employees who, combined, made 18,206 contributions worth $8.3 million to political campaigns at all ranks, from gubernatorial candidates to officials at Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

Among the heavy-hitters to benefit: Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan; Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan; 33rd Ward Alderman Richard F. Mell; 40th Ward Alderman Patrick J. O’Connor; Cook County Board President John H. Stroger Jr.; and Cook County Sheriff Michael F. Sheahan. Each received at least 500 contributions from city, state or county workers.

And the practice is likely more widespread since less than 30 percent of the more than 230,000 contributions from individuals listed an employer.

“It’s a fine line with employees giving,” said Cindi Canary, the executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago nonprofit that researches the role of money in politics. “Having people support those they choose to support can be a good thing with some regulation. But the pattern we see in Illinois is pressure to support.”

Canary’s organization documented a pattern of employee giving in the administration of former Gov. George H. Ryan. And, she says, recent news reports have provided more examples: Employees of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown claimed their superiors coerced them to contribute to Brown’s campaign, and records of employee contributions to Sheahan were found to be riddled with misreporting of names and other errors.

“If an employee feels they’re not giving completely willingly, but perhaps feel their performance review, their promotion, their access to pencils and paper, their corner office, whatever, is tied to really putting their money behind the team—that’s when you hit a problem,” Canary said.

Stroger and Sheahan received more contributions from public employees than any other officials in the state, according to the Reporter’s analysis. Stroger received at least 1,574 contributions from government workers for a total of $457,000, more than a fifth of his entire war chest. Stroger, Cook County’s board president since 1994, controls a $2.9 billion budget and oversees 26,000 employees.

Stroger said the number of employee contributions he receives may be higher because he runs a political organization as well as the county government. “And I know a lot of people. [But] am I twisting arms to get people to contribute to my campaign? No, I’m not doing that,” he said. “I have one of the largest governmental machines other than Mayor Daley’s in the state. I don’t stand up and tell people their jobs are in jeopardy if they don’t support my campaign. But you know, I’m not a Blair Hull or a [Jim] Oberweis. I do rely on people to help me. I’ve worked at this for 50 years, and a lot of the people I started working with are still working with me. I reach out—but reach-out doesn’t mean there’s a quid pro quo, like ‘If you support me, I’m going to give you a job, or this or that.'”

Sheahan received at least 1,367 contributions from public employees, accounting for 43 percent of the $1.7 million he received. After 11 years as an alderman, Sheahan ran for sheriff in 1990 and vowed not to accept contributions from sheriff workers. He now employs more than 6,500 in that office.

“The sheriff draws a great deal of support from working people because of his background as a law enforcement officer and teacher,” said Sally Daly, Sheahan’s spokeswoman. Still, Daly maintained that the practice of contributing to the sheriff is not widespread within his department.

Yet the Reporter’s analysis showed that both Stroger and Sheahan relied heavily on Cook County employees for campaign funds. One of every three contributions from county workers went to one of them.

“It’s never seeing Jane Doe giving her $200 that you worry about. You worry when you see a pattern of giving,” said Canary.

The Reporter found such patterns among frequent donors and among senior-level employees. In Stroger’s case, government employees accounted for 130 of the 164 individuals who donated at least five times to any of his three political committees. In all, county workers accounted for 122 of the 156 people who gave at least five times to Sheahan. Nearly 70 percent of those government workers who made five or more contributions to either Sheahan or Stroger did not give to anyone else.

In other examples, seven of the eight bureau chiefs for the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Richard A. Devine gave to their boss. And Chicago City Clerk James J. Laski received contributions from six supervisors or program coordinators in his office.

Although, for most officials, employee giving does not make up a large percentage of their campaign coffers, “With all of the things that have gone on in this state in recent years, it’s probably the responsible thing to do to set a policy saying you won’t take contributions from your employees,” said Canary.

“When you see a very large proportion of employees giving, and even one of them says he was coerced, you start to suspect many of them are paying to hold on to their jobs,” said Michael L. Shakman, the lawyer whose lawsuit led to the decree forbidding city workers from doing political work on public time. “This is the Chicago Machine at work,” Shakman said.

By Illinois law, any person who gives more than $500 to one candidate has to disclose his or her employer. And most campaigns complied with that law, according to the Reporter’s analysis. “If a person is giving more than $500, the PAC typically knows the person well” and reports the employer, said Tony Morgando, assistant director of campaign disclosure at the Illinois State Board of Elections. But, he said, the board does not impose fines on political groups when they fail to do so. Nor are there any requirements to disclose the employer of contributors who don’t give at least $500.

Most often, government worker contributions only receive attention from the media or political opponents during a race for office, Canary said. While she was running for office, Attorney General Madigan proposed a taskforce that would scrutinize contributions. Officials in Madigan’s office didn’t return calls for comment.

Any official who fires an employee, or denies him or her a promotion, for not giving is in violation of the Cook County Ethics Code, which forbids such practices, said Jennifer Vidis, director of the Cook County Board of Ethics. However, her office has not investigated charges made by employees in recent newspaper stories because, by law, the ethics board can only act when it receives an official complaint, she said. To date, none have been filed.

Cook County’s ethics code doesn’t restrict the amount employees can give their employers, Vidis said. But it should, in the opinion of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas. In 1993, as a Cook County commissioner, Pappas introduced and pushed for the ordinance that established the county’s ethics code.

Campaigning for office is immensely expensive, and it’s too easy for people in power to raise money among their own employees, Pappas said. Eventually, both the employees and the officials approach a tense line in the sand, where it’s unclear if the employee is giving freely or not, she said.

In county government, “there are chips always being traded,” and only campaign finance reform will end the bartering, Pappas said. “Cook County employees are a vast sea of peons that officials prey on because there’s no one looking.”