At the same time that Gov. Pat Quinn is pushing the General Assembly to pass major ethics reforms and solve a horribly complicated $12 billion budget deficit, his campaign committee has been calling top Statehouse groups to set up private meetings with the governor.
The asking price for the exclusive meetings? $15,000.
But the program may soon be shut down after questions were raised about at least the appearance of impropriety, particularly in the wake of ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich's "pay to play" excesses.
Several association executives with Springfield lobbying interests said last week that they've recently received calls from Quinn's campaign. Some have big-ticket items that could be chopped out of the budget during the deficit crisis. All have significant issues pending in the General Assembly, pro and con.
"We turned them down," said one high-level exec about the campaign calls. The executive explained that his group does not contribute or discuss contributions during the legislative session. Ironically enough, several associations - which have been targeted for campaign contribution limits by the governor's reform commission - do not contribute during the end of session.
Also on the ironic side, $15,000 is far above the campaign contribution limits sought by Gov. Quinn and his reform commission, although these appear to be requests for "bundled" contributions from several different people at once.
And that $15,000 asking price clearly demonstrates how politicians - even self-professed reformers like Gov. Quinn - intend to get around any new contribution caps.
According to numerous sources, the campaign calls began with an offer for a private meeting with Gov. Quinn in June, often during breakfast or lunch.
"We were told they wanted to put our members together for 'face time' with the governor to talk about our interests or concerns," explained one exec. All of the executives contacted refused to go on the record for fear of possible retaliation during these crucial final session days.
Three association execs said they then asked whether this was a fundraiser and were told it was. One cut off the conversation immediately, the others listened to the pitch. "She said, 'Well, we want the one-on-one opportunity, but we'd certainly like to raise $15,000.'"
The "she" is Holly Copeland, a top official in the governor's campaign operation. Copeland said last week that she never discussed any legislation or the budget with any of the executives and lobbyists and said she has "no idea what's going on as far as specific bills."
But Dave Lundy, president of the Better Government Association, was shocked. "To say I find it surprising is to put it mildly," he said, adding: "The timing creates an enormous appearance problem."
Asked about the appearance of impropriety of calling associations with major issues pending in the closing days of the legislative session, Ms. Copeland said, "I can see what you're saying, but I can assure you that this is not the intent whatsoever."
Copeland pointed out that the private meetings are all scheduled for June, but asked whether associations might find it risky to turn down an offer from the governor's campaign during May, she said "I can assure you that there is in no way shape or form that there is any intent" to subtly strong-arm the groups.
Ms. Copeland also referred to the $15,000 price as an "arbitrary" number and said she has worked with groups which couldn't afford it. "If they can come up with five or less, it's OK."
Most of the association execs I spoke with said the contacts sounded like they were "cold calls," and Copeland implied the same when she said the campaign was "going through associations in the legislative directory, looking at groups that we thought might be interested."
Bob Reed, the governor's top spokesman, said he talked with the governor and was told that only people who had offered to set up fundraisers were contacted. Reed also said that these people and groups had long-standing relationships with Quinn.
However, at least two association executives whose groups were contacted by the campaign adamantly denied that anybody at their shops had ever approached anyone about raising money for the governor.
Whatever the case, Reed implied that the fundraising calls would cease soon.
"I think it's safe to say that we will rethink our approach here to make sure that misunderstandings like this don't occur," said Reed.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.