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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Illinois PACs Create Shell Nonprofits to Funnel Cash in Ill. Supreme Court Race

As Kevin McDermott and Paul Hampel report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the race for the 5th District seat on the Illinois Supreme Court shattered national records for campaign spending as business interests and trial lawyers spent millions on candidates Lloyd Karmeier and Gordon Maag.

Illinois has no campaign contribution limits, but the state does require that any political donor of more than $150 be disclosed. Yet the source of about $540,000 spent on behalf of the two candidates in the final days of their campaign remains a mystery.

Why? Two Political Action Committees (PACs), each of which supported one of the candidates, took in the money from two nonprofit corporations. Unlike PACs, nonprofits are not required to disclose their contributors.

The catch? The two nonprofits were created by the two PACs, seemingly only to avoid the state's disclosure requirements. Each PAC's nonprofit even shared its name and address. So, wealthy interests had a huge influence on who sits on the Illinois Supreme Court without the voters of Illinois being able to factor that information into their evaluation of the candidates or the ads.

The state of Illinois can and should take a couple of relatively simple steps to correct this problem. First, they should institute low contribution limits for all political races, in order to make a level playing field for candidates and to ensure that wealthy interests aren't overly represented on the bench or in government. Second, they should require any group that seeks to influence the outcome of Illinois elections to abide by those contribution limits and to disclose who their big contributors are.

Then maybe the citizens of Illinois can feel confident that their highest court will dispense justice to all equally.

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