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BGA Exclusive: Cronin’s Cronies

Why are private companies with ties to legislative leaders getting so much government work these days in DuPage County? Perhaps Dan Cronin holds the key.

By Andrew Schroedter/BGA

April 17, 2013 9:33 AM

In the not-too-distant past, the GOP rulers of DuPage County were bitter enemies of Machine Democrats.

But Republican Dan Cronin, the former state senator and current DuPage County Board chairman, isn’t shying away from these one-time adversaries as he pushes an aggressive legislative agenda and ponders higher office, the Better Government Association found.

senator dan cronin
Dan Cronin

Consider the clout-heavy companies the Cronin administration has hired since 2010, when he was first elected:

  • Mesirow Financial, a financial services firm that employs a son of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), the most powerful political figure in the state.
  • Thompson Coburn LLP, a St. Louis-based law firm that employs state Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) as a partner.
  • Burke Burns & Pinelli Ltd., a Chicago law firm that counts state Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), a top Cullerton lieutenant, as a partner.

Also hired by DuPage government during Cronin’s reign: the Joliet law firm of Mahoney, Silverman & Cross LLC, which employs Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego).

Before Cronin became DuPage chairman – responsible for running the county government bureaucracy, serving as a sort of chief executive for the western suburbs – the four firms had done little to no work for the county, at least in recent history, according to interviews and public records.

Since Cronin’s election, those companies have been paid more than $300,000 – and that figure likely is to rise, records indicate.

So is Cronin trying to curry favor with the state’s political bosses?

In an interview with the BGA, Cronin insists merit – not politics – was behind the hiring of those businesses. And he notes that two of the four companies received work through competitive bidding.

"We look at the qualifications – period," he says. "It’s a merit-based selection."

The political leaders at those four firms echoed that claim.

But the timing still raises questions about Cronin’s end game. Playing nice with Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, could help him advance his legislative agenda – and soften opposition if he someday runs for a statewide office.

He’s expected to stay put through the 2014 election, but after that he’s been mentioned as a possible GOP candidate for governor or another post.

In fact, one GOP member of the DuPage County Board told the BGA he’s heard Cronin privately say Mesirow’s hiring could help his relationship with Speaker Madigan.

michael j madigan
Speaker Madigan

Cronin denied making that remark, calling it "very offensive" that someone would question his motives.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown dismisses questions about the Mesirow deal, saying, "They won a bid. It was an open solicitation . . . this isn’t a story as it relates to Mesirow."

Mesirow was hired by the county in 2011 as part of a three-year deal to serve as an insurance broker, securing coverage for county assets and employees.

The Chicago-based company was not the cheapest. But out of the six firms to submit proposals for consideration, it was deemed the "most qualified" by county staff and then the County Board, which ultimately approved hiring the firm, officials say.

(Disclosure: Mesirow has donated to the BGA, and a company executive sits on the nonprofit’s board. However, neither donors nor board members dictate what or how stories are reported.)

Andrew Madigan, the 27-year-old son of Speaker Madigan, works in business development in the firm’s insurance division. However, Mesirow released a statement indicating the younger Madigan isn’t involved in the DuPage contract.

Andrew Madigan did not return phone calls from the BGA.

Cronin tells the BGA he and Andrew Madigan have a "friendly relationship."

"I have interacted with him on different levels," Cronin says, including a time when Cronin, while still a state legislator, traveled to Ireland on a legislative junket that included Michael and Andrew Madigan.

But that relationship, Cronin says, isn’t why Mesirow won the business, nor was the contract an attempt to gain favor with the powerful speaker.

Mesirow stands to get paid $279,000 in commissions, and already has collected $139,500, records show.

Cross’ law firm, meanwhile, has been paid $103,000 to serve as general counsel to the DuPage Housing Authority, a county agency overseen by a Cronin-appointed board. The firm was hired through a competitive selection process in January 2012, officials say.

Less than a year later, Cross was the main draw for Cronin’s political fundraiser at an Oak Brook steakhouse, and was listed on the invitation as a "special guest."

tom cross
Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross

Cross says he attended the fundraiser at Cronin’s request; it had nothing to do with his firm or its contract, he says. It was not immediately clear how much money was raised at the event.

The other two firms – Cullerton’s and Harmon’s – were chosen by Cronin’s administration to participate in county bond deals, records show.

As is the case with most "professional service" contracts, county officials had leeway to pick the firms they want to work with, though the County Board ultimately approves the selections. Cullerton and Harmon didn’t directly work on either bond deal, county officials say.

Thompson Coburn, Cullerton’s firm, was paid $20,000 to serve as legal counsel on an April 2012 bond sale. It was the first time in at least a decade that the firm worked on a DuPage bond deal, officials say.

"While attorneys with Thompson Coburn do and will continue to represent local governments in public finance matters, including DuPage County, that representation is independent of the Senate President, and he has refrained from participating in these matters," the state Senate spokeswoman says in a statement.

Burke Burns was paid $33,750 to serve as legal counsel on a December 2012 bond sale, and another $11,250 for work it did on a related deal that wasn’t completed. Burke Burns worked with DuPage before Cronin took office – most recently on a 2009 bond sale, which also paid the firm $11,250, records show.

Harmon didn’t return calls, but through a state Senate spokeswoman he released a statement saying he isn’t "aware of any business relationship or conflict of interest."

However, Harmon recently became a chief co-sponsor of a bill that would give the county more power to consolidate or eliminate some of its 400 taxing bodies. The bill has passed out of the Senate’s executive committee, which Harmon chairs, a key step in the approval process.

Cronin is actively pushing that bill, whose other legislative sponsors include state Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park), a cousin of state Senate President Cullerton. Tom Cullerton says his support has nothing to do with his cousin.

senator john j cullerton
Senate President John Cullerton

Another bill that Cronin is believed to at least tacitly support would fold the DuPage forest preserve district into the county apparatus now run by Cronin – bringing more jobs and taxpayer money under his control, but also, in theory, improving efficiency.

Neither of those bills stands much of a chance of passing without the backing of Madigan and John Cullerton, and perhaps Harmon and Cross.

Cronin is believed to be pushing so-called "good government" measures in part to build a legislative foundation on which he could run for higher office, sources tell the BGA. Cronin says he’s happy with his current lot, but doesn’t rule out a run for another post after a 2014 bid for re-election as County Board chairman.

Cronin isn’t the first DuPage Republican to embrace Chicago Democrats. His immediate predecessor, Bob Schillerstrom, hired Victor Reyes and John Wyma, lobbyists with ties to then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, respectively.

Schillerstrom at the time was accused of trying to curry favor with Democrats as he positioned himself for a run for higher office. That came in 2009 when he announced he was running for governor. He ended up dropping out before the 2010 GOP primary.

Before Schillerstrom and Cronin, the relationship between DuPage Republicans and city Democrats was often marked by bitterness, with political battles over everything from tort reform and school funding to O’Hare Airport runway expansion.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.

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