ILLINOIS (WCIA) — A political media firm that charged Illinois Republicans more than $2.1 million in the 2018 election cycle also made payments to House Republican Leader Jim Durkin’s right hand political operative David Walsh.
Those payments overlapped with a period when Walsh briefly sat on the Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board. However, the income was not reported to the State Board of Elections as an in-kind contribution, nor did it appear on Walsh’s statement of economic interest that he filed with the Cook County Clerk.
“He feels he hasn’t done anything illegal or unethical,” Walsh’s attorney Patrick Walsh volunteered in an unsolicited phone call. “He feels he’s made all the appropriate disclosures about the work he did.”
Former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner appointed Walsh to the government post in 2015. The position pays an annual salary of $70,000, but requires board members to disclose other sources of income to reveal any potential conflicts of interest. In addition to trading commodities, Walsh reported his only other income as a self-employed consultant, but did not detail which companies were paying him.
“It demonstrates the weakness of the statement of economic interest law,” political scientist Kent Redfield said.
Durkin’s spokesperson confirmed the payments were made, and that Durkin knew about them, but declined to comment on the story. The secretive transaction caught many top House Republicans off guard and aggravated existing concerns about the potential for vendors making “kickbacks,” “spiffs,” or offering other incentives to consultants.
Walsh is far and away Durkin’s highest paid political consultant. Public records show Walsh earned more than half a million dollars from the Republican House leader’s campaign committee for work dating back to 2013.
Redfield, a campaign finance expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the payment illustrated a process that could easily be exploited as a sort of dark money loophole.
“When you get in a posture where someone can essentially engage in self-dealing, it’s not only the public trust in understanding transparency, but the people that are trying to operate and win campaigns want to make sure things are above board,” Redfield said.
The chief executive of the national firm Majority Strategies did not say how much Walsh got paid, but insisted that being on his company’s payroll had nothing to do with House Republicans or their digital or mail campaigns.
“David Walsh is an advisor to me and helps me develop business ideas that have nothing to do with the Illinois House,” CEO Brett Buerk explained in a phone call. “To suggest that we somehow had to pay him in order to get work is offensive. We had the Illinois House as a client going back to 2011. Our business relationship with Walsh has only been for the last 18 months.”
Public records show Buerk’s company started working with House Republican David McSweeney in 2011, and then branched out to start offering services to other House members during the 2014 election. In the 2018 cycle, Majority Strategies did $2,179,797 worth of campaign work for Illinois Republicans. It also charged the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee more than $134,000 and collected nearly $600,000 from pro-charter school super PACs funded by members of the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune.
After losing seven House seats in 2018, a ‘Gang of Six’ Republicans performed an autopsy on what went wrong, and how the party should regroup and move forward. In addition to assigning blame to the top of the GOP ticket where incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner took a beating, House Republicans were also quick to point a finger at high paid consultants. Several members of the House Republican Organization (HRO), the caucus’ political arm, suspect that some consultants prioritized making money more than winning elections.
“That’s why we’re being more cautious and deliberate in talking with vendors and consultants now,” Woodhull Republican Dan Swanson said. The newly minted secretary at HRO said, “We have to ensure our dollars are going to those individual candidates.”
According to several sources in the House Republican caucus, Representative Mike Unes of Peoria questioned why so many high priced consultants who failed to deliver results remained on the party payroll. Durkin responded by booting Unes from his leadership team. Reached by phone, Unes declined to comment on the falling out.
Dogged by defeat and disgusted with the appearance of self-dealing in the political realm, incoming leadership decided to adopt more stringent rules for vendors, requiring them to respond to public requests for proposals before they can win lucrative contracts for political work.
The state embraced similar rules for government contracts in the wake of the scandal-ridden Blagojevich era in an attempt to enhance public trust. The Rauner administration later dismissed those procurement laws as “red tape.”
Representative Tony McCombie was recently named as the new chair of the HRO, replacing Springfield Republican Tim Butler at the helm. McCombie said she was completely unaware that Majority Strategies was paying Durkin’s go-to political operative for side work, but she said in general that when the party is shopping for vendors, “We don’t want any shenanigans at all. We don’t think that’s fair to our donors.”
McCombie was in the ‘Gang of Six’ along with Reps. Butler, Grant Wehrli, Terri Bryant, Ryan Spain, and Mark Batinick. Their autopsy report, which has not yet been made public, critiqued inaccurate polling data, questioned media ad buys in what proved to be unwinnable races, and wrestled with how to best overcome voter apathy from disillusioned conservatives who increasingly feel their vote doesn’t matter in a state now in complete Democratic control.
“It’s hard to convince citizens they need to participate in the process and to trust the outcome of the process,” Redfield said. “You want them to accept outcomes as being legitimate. The more they have questions about what’s being done behind closed doors, the less likely it is they’re going to accept outcomes as legitimate.
“Anytime the legislature wants to pass a bill and the Governor wants to sign it, the legislature could address this and get rid of these gray areas and ambiguities.”