Bernard Schoenburg: Billionaires’ GOP donations scrutinized

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Illinois lawmakers imposed campaign contribution limits in the wake of corrupt fundraising done by former Gov. ROD BLAGOJEVICH. So what’s a billionaire to do now?

Well, a wealthy Chicago couple — KEN GRIFFIN, founder and CEO of the Citadel investment firm, and his wife, ANNE Dias griffin, who founded and runs Aragon Global Management — still were able to find a number of political committees associated with their favorite party — the Republicans — and spread around their donations that way.

But eyebrows have been raised. While the Griffins combined to donate more than $200,000 to more than 10 GOP organizations, including GOP committees in Logan, Douglas, Fayette, Madison and Richland counties, those groups then — coincidentally? — combined to donate more than $120,000 to the Illinois Republican Party in the first three months of this year.

Campaign contributions, by the way, can’t be made anonymously or in the name of another person.

The contribution sequence was first reported by DOUG IBENDAHL, a lawyer who used to be counsel for the state party and now often criticizes its leadership, on his Republican News Watch website.

KENT REDFIELD, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield and a longtime student of campaign finance, said the money flow looks like “an end run around contribution limits.”

That is not the case, state GOP Chairman PAT BRADY said.

“With all due respect to professor Redfield, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Brady said.

He said the money that came back from the county committees to the state party was generally to buy $5,000 tickets to a state GOP fundraiser in Chicago in January. (The event featured GOP guru KARL ROVE.)

A spokeswoman for Citadel, speaking on behalf of the Griffins, also said there was no plan to have the money given to the far-flung organizations come back to the state party.

“The intent was to support the entities to whom we wrote the checks,” said KATIE SPRING.

“I believe deeply that our great state needs representatives who are willing to address the fundamental fiscal issues we face,” Ken Griffin said in a statement.  “I advocate for those candidates at all levels of government.”

The situation has gotten extra scrutiny because of the process to replace U.S. Rep. TIM JOHNSON, R-Urbana, on the Nov. 6 ballot in the new 13th Congressional District. Johnson won the primary, but dropped out of the general election.

RODNEY DAVIS of Taylorville, one of four remaining candidates for the nod, ran the Republican “victory” coordinated campaign effort in Illinois in 2010. He spent most of 2011 as acting executive director of the state party.

Davis said he did have a role in helping the Griffins find GOP organizations to contribute to, but those donations were “absolutely not” linked to the Rove event.

“I introduced some of those county party chairmen to Mrs. Griffin, absolutely,” Davis said. “Each of those counties knew from Day 1, they have the ability to spend that money to help elect Republicans, and that’s what they’re going to do.”

The donations generally were given in amounts of $10,000 from each of the Griffins. That’s the limit an individual can give a political party committee during each election cycle.

Davis said he also was among a GOP team that solicited funds for the Rove event, which raised more than $320,000.

“I am confident no local county party who received large donations got them contingent upon buying tickets for the Rove luncheon, or any event for that matter,” Davis said. He said local GOP organizations are good places to help elect Republicans.

Another of the four finalists in the race to replace Johnson is JERRY CLARKE of Urbana, who represents the current 15th Congressional District on the GOP State Central Committee.

“He (Clarke) has never been told by staff or the (state) chairman about these fundraising activities,” Clarke spokesman MIKE CYS said. “He only learned about these activities from recent media reports.”

An aside, perhaps, but Clarke’s campaign manager is DAVE BENDER, who is the Logan County Republican chairman. Bender’s county organization got $10,000 each from Ken and Anne Griffin on Dec. 31, state records show, and gave $5,000 to the state GOP on Jan. 16. Bender didn’t return a call for comment.

Among other central Illinois entities involved, the 18th Congressional District Republican Central Committee got $20,000 from the Griffins and donated $10,000 to the state GOP; and the 19th Congressional District Republican PAC also got $20,000, and donated $5,000 to the state GOP.

J.C. KOWA of Olney, chairman of the Richland County GOP, said $20,000 came his organization’s way, and Anne Griffin called in the process, asking “a lot of questions about our organization.”

He said the money wasn’t linked to the Rove event, but one of his committeemen saw information about the Rove visit on the Internet, and three representatives from his group, including himself, made the trip. The program, he said, was “unbelievable,” in a good way.

A.J. WISS of Pana, chairman of the Christian County GOP, said he got two $10,000 checks from the Griffins, considered them a welcome donation, and hasn’t spent the money yet.

“It will be put to good use,” he said, noting there will be candidates to elect this fall.

Ken Griffin, by the way, called himself a “Reagan Republican” in a Chicago Tribune interview in March. That story noted that he and his wife had also given $200,000 to Chicago Mayor RAHM EMANUAL, who Ken Griffin characterized as a problem-solver. Griffin has also donated to President BARACK OBAMA in the past, but he and his wife recently gave $100,000 to help MITT ROMNEY, he said in the interview.

He also said he’s donated to American Crossroads, run by Rove, and Americans for Prosperity, linked to businessmen CHARLES and DAVID KOCH. He referred to the Koch brothers as “huge advocates for free markets.” He also said in the interview that he is “terrified that we as a country are headed in the wrong direction.”

In addition to Davis and Clarke, finalists for the 13th District GOP ballot spot are 2003 Miss America ERIKA HAROLD and KATHY WASSINK of Shipman. A decision is expect May 19.

Pat Brady, as state party chairman, is overseeing the selection process and reiterated that he is staying neutral. Still, in defending Davis’ role in party activities, he also heaped praise on Davis.

Brady said Davis did “an unbelievable job” running the Illinois victory program in the 2010 cycle, when the GOP won a majority of U.S. House seats in the state. Brady also said he basically took five months off from party work last year to help his wife, JULIE, in her continuing battle with cancer. During that time, he said, Davis handled party restructuring and worked to pay off the party’s debt.

“He’s really transformed it into an effective organization and done everything that I’ve ever asked him,” Brady said of Davis.

Best of luck to the Brady family.   

Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or follow him via His email address is