Water District Democrats Gave Campaign Donors $722 Million in Contracts

There's money in the sewer system, and not just the loose change that falls down drains: over the past five years, elected Democrats on the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) awarded their campaign donors more than $722 million in taxpayer-funded contract spending.

A comparison of campaign finance records and MWRD contracting records shows that roughly 60% of all contract spending approved by Board of Commissioner votes in the past five years (the period covered by the District's online contract reporting) went to businesses which had donated to the campaign committee of at least one of the Commissioners voting on the contracts' approval.

All told, the Board approved 190 separate contracts for campaign donor businesses, totaling $722,543,566.27 in value.

Campaign Cash Nets Big Return on Investment at MWRD

Some of the most prolific donors to MWRD Commissioner campaign committees were also the recipients of some of the largest shares of contracting dollars, including $14,245,000 to construction company F. H. Paschen (donor to seven Commissioners' campaign committees), $28,516,848.74 to engineering firm Independent Mechanical Industries (six campaign committees), and $288,758,500 IHC Construction (six campaign committees). 

Other campaign donors that received MWRD contracts included law firms, office supply and tech companies, chemical and petroleum suppliers, trucking/hauling operations, and even global water privatization giant Veolia Water (the same firm that, as a private contractor, pronounced the water in Flint, MI fit to drink in 2015, shortly before that city's lead contamination became a national story). 

On average, firms that made direct donations to the campaign committees of MWRD Commissioners received $4,566.90 in contracts for every dollar they donated.

Contracts awarded to campaign donors were also significantly more valuable than contracts awarded to other firms: the average MWRD contractor over the five-year period examined received $684,031.66 in contracts from the District, while campaign donor firms received an average of $10,035,327.31—nearly fifteen times as much contracting income as non-donors. 

Every Democrat Does It

Of the nine-member, all-Democrat Board of Commissioners, only the late Timothy Bradford (who died in office in December 2017) took no campaign committee donations from MWRD contractors, according to campaign committee records available at IllinoisSunshine.org. All the other currently sitting Commissioners (and former Commissioner Cynthia Santos, who left the Board at the end of 2016) took thousands of dollars in contributions from firms to which they awarded contracts:

Commissioner Total Donations from MWRD Contractors
Frank Avila $115,194.46
Martin Durkan $11,700.00
Barbara McGowan $83,300.00
Josina Morita $13,850.00
Cynthia Santos $24,400.00
Debra Shore $90,825.00
Mariyana Spyropoulos $60,220.00
Kari Steele $9,300.00
TOTAL $408,789.46

All told, the Board of Commissioners took in close to half a million dollars in campaign donations from MWRD contractors, and in return doled out more than $722 million in taxpayer money to those same companies. 

Even by the pay-to-play standards of Cook County, it's a staggering amount of money flowing to the well-connected, and, with the death of Commissioner Bradford in December, Cook County voters are left with a Board of Commissioners on which every sitting member has taken thousands of dollars in campaign cash from MWRD contractors—many of whom will no doubt be back for more contracts in the years to come.

Green Party Candidates Vow "No Corporate Donations"

The Greens for MWRD campaign, an Illinois Green Party slate of candidates for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board of Commissioners, has vowed to contest the 2018 elections with no donations of any kind from for-profit corporate entities. 

"There's no possibility of conflict of interest, because we simply don't take business donations," said Illinois Green Party Secretary and MWRD candidate Geoffrey Cubbage. "If any of these firms offered us campaign cash, we would politely refuse."

Cubbage continued, "When it comes time to evaluate contracts for the MWRD, Green Party Commissioners could do so with a clean, unbiased perspective. I don't think you can say the same thing of people who are taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the bidding firms."

Voters will have a chance to select Green Party candidates for the MWRD in 2018, starting in the March primary. Four of the Green Party candidates are running unopposed and will be listed on November ballots, while candidate Cubbage is running in the write-in-only primary to fill Commissioner Bradford's vacant seat, and will need 1,720 write-in votes cast on Green Party primary ballots to advance to the November election. 

Campaign finance data for this analysis was taken from IllinoisSunshine.org. Metropolitan Water Reclamation District contracting records for the past five years can be found at the MWRD Awarded Contracts portal. A spreadsheet comparing contracts awarded to the campaign donations of contracting firms can be downloaded from this website