The Chris Cline coal campaign contribution scandal has grown bigger than I ever expected. CoalGate is getting wide press coverage and resulted in a second acting director of Mines & Minerals being removed for the same actions as Tony Mayville. Here's a rundown of the press coverage and expanding consequences since I first wrote about a former mine regulator taking campaign contributions from a coal industry billionaire.
Patrick Yeagle at Illinois Times was the first reporter to give the story the full journalism treatment. IT reported that Tony Mayville was placed on unpaid leave and an investigation is underway.
Jim Tenuto, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections, says a state law on official misconduct may make the contributions a criminal act, though that’s up to a state’s attorney or the attorney general to decide. Under the state law, if Mayville solicited the contributions, it would be a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.
Chris McCloud, spokesman for DNR, said the contributions to the committee controlled by Mayville came to light when Mayville sought permission from DNR director Marc Miller to run for elected office.
The trouble is that Mayville was already taking contributions from the coal industry to his Washington County Democratic political fund when he was made acting director of the Office of Mines & Minerals in 2012. It was public information easily accessible by a simple web search. It was no secret that Mayville was chair of a county political party. Did no one bother checking at the time or did no one care? Or both.
WSIL TV news interviewed Mayville for their story. He tried to keep the focus on a contribution to his State Representative campaign fund instead of the additional contributions he was taking to his political party fund since 2008.
His defense says it all. He argues that the contributions are no big deal because the company representative is good friend he used to work with anyway. Think about that for a minute. The guy who was in charge of mine safety for Illinois, and the entire Mines & Minerals Office for a time, is saying that campaign contributions from the industry he regulates can't influence him because he's already such good buddies with industry officials anyway. He actually argued that!
That shows exactly the problem I set out to highlight. There's a cozy good ol' boy network among DNR regulatory staff and their friends and former co-workers in the industries they regulate. A top Illinois regulator just said so!
In case it wasn't obvious enough that this is part of a broader problem within the agency, the current acting director of Mines & Minerals was jut caught doing the exact same thing. I first read at Capitol Fax, and then the News-Gazette that Douglas County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Woods Sr. was removed from his position for accepting political contributions from Foresight Energy, a company owned by the Cline Group.
Within a few days of Foresight's $10,000 donation to the Douglas County Democrats, officials disbursed much of it to Democratic candidates and other party organizations outside of Douglas County.
The largest sum — $5,000 — went to Gov. Pat Quinn's re-election campaign. Another $1,200 went to the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen's Association. And $250 went to the campaign fund of state Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign.
The Douglas County Democrats also gave $1,000 to the campaign fund of Tony Mayville, a Democratic candidate for the Illinois House in the 115th District in southern Illinois.
Douglas county Democrats had a sleepy little campaign fund until Wood got his promotion at IDNR. Then, what do you know, Foresight Energy gave them a $10,000 political contribution. It's a pattern.
Chris Cline is not an insignificant donor. He massively expanded his Illinois coal holdings in recent years to make him one of the top energy players in the state. His companies have had many issues pending before DNR and will have many more. He's making ginormous contributions through multiple subsidiaries to politicians all over the state the state. Billionaire Chris Cline is attempting to purchase control of the state's political and regulatory systems.
An excellent video about a recent hearing on a Cline mine near Hillsboro reveals the dysfunction of the current system.
Pat Quinn and Mike Frerichs donated the campaign funds they received from the Douglas County Democrats to charity. They're keeping hundreds of thousands they've taken directly from Chris Cline and his coal empire. It's a nice attempt to avoid controversy, but keeping their other Cline donations sends the message that they're still available for purchase.
It would be a disservice if Governor Quinn is allowed to deflect attention from this scandal after two personnel changes at IDNR. This is a systemic problem about the culture of a crucial regulatory agency full of political hires leftover from the Blagojevich administration. People deserve to know whether Chris Cline companies were regulated to the full extent of the law in both the permitting process and with mine safety. Fatal mine accidents and cancer-causing pollutants make this literally a life and death issue.