is an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice
at New York University School of Law
The downfall of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had so many lurid facets - auctioning President Obama's vacant Senate seat, pushing to get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired, cursing like a longshoreman - that one key detail is easily lost in the mix. In the months leading up to his arrest, the governor was busy trying to get in his last big-money shakedowns before a new pay-to-play law took effect on Jan. 1.
The law, inspired by Blagojevich's own misdeeds, prohibits businesses with state contracts worth more than $50,000 from donating to the campaign of an official approving the contract. The law also makes it clear that the governor is responsible for executive-branch contracts.
In the campaign-finance arena, Illinois has long been a poster child for what not to do. It remains, for example, one of five states with no contribution limits. But the new pay-to-play law finally blocks one important avenue for abuse: unlimited campaign contributions to state officials from those seeking lucrative state contracts.
Why should Pennsylvania care about pay-to-play laws in Illinois? Because Pennsylvania, like most states, could learn from its example as it considers similar reforms.
This month saw the introduction in Harrisburg of a package of ethics reforms that would fight pay-to-play. Pennsylvania House Bill 205 would prevent government contracts from being awarded to any person or company that has recently contributed to a political campaign.
As they consider the legislation, Pennsylvania lawmakers should take note of some of the egregious quid pro quo that's been uncovered in Illinois. As prosecutor David Ellis stressed in his closing argument in Blagojevich's impeachment trial, Obama's former Senate seat wasn't the only thing for sale. Legislation, public contracts, and other official acts were all on the auction block.
What Blagojevich usually wanted in return was a hefty campaign contribution. On FBI wiretaps, he clearly indicated that contributions must come in by the end of the year to beat the clock on the new ethics law.
Usually, the quid pro quo in politics is a little more subtle than a governor on a cell phone brazenly trolling for cash from contractors and lobbyists. And Illinois is not the only state that needs pay-to-play laws to discourage politicians from amassing campaign funds by shaking down government contractors.
Across the nation, state and federal courts have upheld pay-to-play laws as serving to prevent corruption and the appearance of it. Over the past three months, a steady parade of cases reaffirmed the value and validity of these protective measures.
In New Jersey, the recent Earle Asphalt Co. case upheld a state law prohibiting any agency from awarding a large contract to a business that has contributed more than $300 to certain political candidates. Ognibene v. Parkes upheld New York City's law subjecting those doing business with the city to lower contribution limits. And Green Party of Connecticut v. Garfield upheld Connecticut's ban on contributions and solicitations from lobbyists and state contractors.
In a way, Illinois got lucky. Its big fish got caught because Blagojevich was arrogant enough to personally orchestrate pay-to-play schemes, even when he knew he was under federal investigation. More often, though, political shakedowns are likely to take place under the radar.
That's why every state needs laws to protect the integrity of contracting as well as democracy. As the Supreme Court wrote in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, sometimes "the best means of prevention is to identify and to remove the temptation."
We should not need another scandal to bring about laws that will save taxpayer dollars - and save us from the public spectacle of disgraced elected officials.