By: Mark Glennon*
Update: Friday, 7-11-14: Today, Greg Hinz ran another article doubling down his distortion of this non-story. Hinz says today that he has further information that provides “more reason to believe today that Mr. Rauner didn’t know about the contributions.” “More reason”? Ha! The original story left out any suggestion of that. And he runs today’s article under the headline Mystery deepens over political donations by Rauner Venture. His spin now is that, as a director, Rauner should have known about the contributions and his failure raises a question of “competency and skills” instead of ethics. Hogwash. As I wrote below, a director would not be expected to know about contributions so small. Hinz knows that.
He should be running an apology for the initial story that did spin this as an ethical issue. For that matter, he should be apologizing for suggesting that there’s any story here at all.
Our original story from yesterday is here:
It’s not just that the recent column by Greg Hinz at Crain’s about political contributions and Bruce Rauner was a deceitful smear job, though it was.
And it’s not just that I like Bruce Rauner, though that is my viewpoint.
It’s that Mr. Hinz ignores any sense of obligation as a political reporter to explain the realities of campaign finance and how people should interpret contributions they read about. It’s that he exploits the cynicism most Illinoisans rightly have about money and politics by steering them towards believing in a scandal he can’t show. It’s that he distorts so deliberately the prism through which people should be thinking about contributions made not just by Rauner’s companies but by anybody.
First, the article. It’s about contributions made by one of the companies in which Rauner’s former firm, GTCR, invested and on whose board of directors he served. The contributions went to the infamous John and Todd Stroger, former presidents of the Cook County Board, and to Michael Madigan. But the story begins by saying, in an underhanded but perfectly firm way, that it was Rauner himself who “funneled” that campaign cash,. There’s no evidence of that, but many readers no doubt don’t get past that first paragraph and, if they do and they’re trusting Mr. Hinz as a reporter, they will be starting with a false impression.
Mr. Hinz goes on to describe how that company got a nice contract from Cook County, then gave about $9,500 to the Strogers’ campaigns. $5,000 also went from that company to the Democratic Party of Illinois that Madigan controls. Finally, the company apparently got behind on its taxes at one point for $81,000 and a tax lien was filed, the current balance on which is $48.
Stated that way it doesn’t sound too bad, but put those facts in an article loaded with hot button phrases like “pay-to-play,” “zillions in contract goodies,” and “hundreds of millions of dollars of work,” and the average reader probably gets just the sense Mr. Hinz intended, which is that this is all part of a bigger picture of slime and criminality that’s so common in Illinois. Mr. Hinz concludes by saying “don’t tell me that this race for governor has a candidate who doesn’t know how to play the system.”
If Mr. Hinz wanted to do a responsible job reporting on what these or any campaign contributions mean or don’t mean, here are some of the kinds of things he’d be including:
– Sure, some contributors are playing the system, but contributors are getting played by the system all the time. I once heard former Senator Paul Simon, who was as honest as they come, put it something like this: “It’s 9 PM and my assistant hands me a stack of 20 phone call messages. I only have time to return some, and I notice that a few are from some big contributors. Just who do you think I am likely to call?” That’s the system. It’s the reality faced by people, companies and interest groups, working in good faith, that have legitimate positions they want to express. Are contributors in effect paying bribes or being shaken down by the system? Rest assured that most business people see it as one massive shakedown.
– Five grand doesn’t get you much with the likes of Mike Madigan, which is what that company gave to the Democratic party. For once I actually believe Madigan’s spokesman, who said he “doesn’t know what that contribution was about.” I’d be surprised if $5k is enough even to get a call returned.
– A corporate contribution to an officeholder who awarded a contract, given after the fact, shouldn’t be surprising or troubling if the company believes in itself. Maybe, for example, the CEO of the company Hinz wrote about thought “at least that knucklehead Stroger understands the value of our work, so it’s in our interest to get him reelected.”
– Company contributions as small as $5,000 or $10,000 — and most other spending items that small — probably aren’t known to boards of directors, especially if they are broken into smaller pieces as were the Stroger contributions. I’ve sat on company boards, albeit with smaller companies than Rauner did. I and those boards probably wouldn’t have noticed contributions that small unless they were flagged somehow by the CEO or CFO.
– Contributors often give to candidates they don’t like for perfectly good reasons. Maybe the candidate is right on one issue important to a company, or maybe they want to try to move a candidate in a more sensible direction. I’ve sat on PAC boards. This being Illinois, I routinely had to hold my nose about checks going to people who were best for the particular issue the PAC was tasked to support. Corporations and interest groups do the same.
As for things like that $48 unpaid tax bill, what’s there to say? I guess every bit of muck helps if you’re trying to rake it into a big pile.
*Mark Glennon is founder of WirePoints.