Cash-strapped Chicago State University spent about $200,000 over the past two years to lobby state lawmakers, including contracts with consultants closely tied to legislative leaders whose inability to pass a state budget has contributed to the school’s financial crisis.
With Chicago State’s budget woes forcing administrators to lay off hundreds of employees, including professors, money continued to flow to the politically connected to help with the university’s legislative strategy in Springfield and with communications advice for school leaders.
The most money went to the lobbying firm of former Democratic state Sen. James DeLeo, a longtime ally of Senate President John Cullerton and others. DeLeo’s two-year contract, which expires in June, is worth up to $180,000 and is renewable for two additional years.
The university, which has long had Democratic allies and worked with members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, also paid nearly $20,000 last year for a short-term contract with Republican consultants to help convey to the governor and legislators the urgency of passing a new budget last spring.
Finally, Chicago State continued its relationship with Steve Brown, the spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan. Brown — hired as a communications consultant, not as a lobbyist — was brought on board in 2011 to help then-President Wayne Watson with communications. He has been paid $18,000 a year, according to his contracts.
The spending, spelled out in documents the Tribune obtained through open records requests, raises questions about how the school spent money at a time it was in such desperate financial straits — and whether it made sense for the public university to pay to lobby lawmakers so deadlocked that higher education has received only partial, sporadic funding.
Other financially struggling public universities in the state did not employ lobbyists.
But Chicago State spokeswoman Sabrina Land said lobbyists are crucial to ensuring the university “has a voice and representation” in government decisions, and that they have helped secure funding for various projects in past years — including for a new electrical system and pharmacy college. The university’s former director of public relations, Thomas Wogan, a former top Madigan legislative staffer, was the university’s primary liaison to Springfield until he was laid off last spring amid the downsizing.
Others question whether spending money on lobbying amid a fiscal crisis — particularly one brought on by the same people being lobbied — is wise.
“In the grand scheme of things, it is not a lot of money, but that’s not the point. The point is how we make these financial decisions and what we choose to spend money on,” said faculty union President Robert Bionaz. “You have to look at the end result, and the end result has been a series of piecemeal (state) appropriations. I just wonder what the outcome would have been without the expenditure of that money. I can’t imagine it would have been much different.”
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s chief of staff, Richard Goldberg, also has criticized Chicago State’s use of lobbyists. In a memo last year to the General Assembly — titled “CSU: Lobbyists & Administrators Win, Students & Taxpayers Lose” — Goldberg argued that higher education funding should be tied to spending cuts and cost-saving reforms.
Earlier this month, Rauner began to take control of Chicago State’s leadership when he appointed four new trustees to oversee the campus, including former Democratic rival Paul Vallas, known for his education reforms while CEO at Chicago Public Schools and other school districts around the country.
The new leadership team faces a number of challenges. Enrollment is now at 3,600 students — less than half of what it was in 2010. A new president was forced out after just nine months. The university has lost or settled several whistleblower lawsuits against the former president. Its graduation rate is 11 percent. What’s more, the public campus faces the prospect of running out of cash before the end of the school year unless state lawmakers and Rauner find a way to end the longest budget impasse in state history.
For the past 18 months, Rauner and legislative Democrats have agreed only on stopgap budgets to keep the government running, the latest of which expired at the end of last year. There is currently no additional money allocated for state universities, social service providers and others this fiscal year.
Of all the public universities, Chicago State — which historically has depended on the state for about one-third of its budget — is among those hit hardest by the impasse. It has received about $32.5 million during the past 18 months, less than the $36 million it received in a one-year period the last time the state provided full funding. The university has trimmed its budget to about $70 million this year, down from about $110 million.
Chicago State, in defending its use of lobbyists, said that compared with other public colleges and universities, it received the largest percentage allocation in a stopgap budget passed last April. After a second stopgap budget passed in June, though, Eastern Illinois University and Western Illinois University — both public universities, and both at financial risk — were brought up to the same level.
Neither Eastern Illinois nor Western Illinois hired external lobbyists last year.
Southern Illinois University this year has a $90,000 contract with a lobbying firm, and Northeastern Illinois University is in the final year of an $85,000-a-year contract, according to the campuses. The University of Illinois has a government relations staff and hires outside help as needed, a spokesman said.
Chicago State didn’t always employ lobbyists. In March 2010, the university’s then-head of governmental affairs told trustees that the university “was advised not to hire a lobbyist due to the budget crisis,” according to minutes from a board committee meeting. After a board member questioned whether students’ interests were being protected in Springfield, then-President Watson responded that he would revisit hiring a lobbyist.
Land, the university spokeswoman, said the lobbying firms “were both integral in advocating and lobbying for CSU to receive funding during the budget stalemate.”
DeLeo’s firm — James A. DeLeo & Associates — has been listed as a Chicago State lobbyist since 2013, according to secretary of state records. DeLeo retired from the state Senate in 2010 after serving in the legislature for 25 years, in both the House and Senate.
DeLeo, who had a salary of $84,416 during his last year in office, draws $100,270 a year from the state pension system, according to state pension officials.
His most recent two-year contract with the university was signed in July 2015 by Watson and DeLeo, president of the firm. The invoices, approved by university general counsel Patrick Cage, state that DeLeo’s firm “monitored legislation moving thru out the current General Assembly.”
Two invoices include participation in a legislative rally as one of the lobbying services provided.
The firm also has lobbied the governor’s staff, drafted legislation, monitored committee hearings and developed a legislative strategy, according to invoices.
DeLeo did not return calls for comment.
Cullerton, in an interview with the Tribune, said DeLeo has spoken with him about Chicago State, including during budget discussions last year.
“Obviously they were trying to get money and we did some stopgap budgets where we had different levels,” Cullerton said.
In March, Chicago State signed a three-month contract to hire Leinenweber Baroni & Daffada Consulting. The university worked with Peter Baroni, a Republican lawyer and former counsel to the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee.
The university paid the firm $19,500, records show. In a summary of work submitted with an invoice, the firm took credit for developing and implementing strategies to get state funding during the stalemate. The firm said the strategy led to the first stopgap budget in April that was needed “to avoid the university’s closure.” The firm then ensured the university’s interests were addressed “to the fullest extent possible” in the second interim funding bill enacted in June, according to the memo.
The firm said it stayed in regular contact with university officials, legislators and legislative staff, and set up meetings between school officials and Republican legislative leaders.
“I was advocating for a client that was distressed and had some desperate need and we had some success,” Baroni said.
Brown, Madigan’s spokesman who Chicago State hired for communications work, said he has worked with the contracted lobbyists to try to “make sure they are aware of things that are going on.” Brown works for Madigan as a contract employee and not a state employee and therefore is eligible for other consulting work.
Brown said most of his work involves strategizing with the university president. “It is trying to figure out how you position the university … address some of the challenges that come with an institution that has had some criticism, has had some problems,” he said.
There are times when his work with Madigan and Chicago State have collided. Last year, as Rauner blamed the legislature for Chicago State’s financial problems, Brown responded on behalf of Madigan and said the governor was responsible for “trying to destroy higher education.”
Brown contended, however, that he keeps his jobs separate and does not lobby Madigan on behalf of the university.
“I am not hired by people to gain some special advantage in the speaker’s office or Democratic leadership in the House,” Brown said.
Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith Richards contributed.