Advocates of the controversial “legislative scholarship” program, which was formally dismantled Wednesday by Gov. Pat Quinn after decades of abuse by legislators who awarded the free-tuition waivers, long have argued they should remain because they help needy members of the general public attend college.
But an analysis by the Better Government Association found something else: 1,200 scholarships awarded over the past decade or so – or roughly one in 10 –went to politically active families that had the financial wherewithal to collectively donate $1.6 million to the campaign funds of state and local politicians.
Much of that money went directly to the awarding legislators, the analysis found.
The findings further bolster the arguments for doing away with the decades-old program, which was rife with allegations that certain lawmakers handed out free tuition to state schools in exchange for campaign donations, and violated the lone rule of the initiative: that recipients live in the district of the awarding legislator.
On Tuesday, the day before Quinn signed a bill eliminating the scholarships effective Sept. 1, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that federal prosecutors have subpoenaed scholarship records for state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago), a signal that an existing federal probe on the topic is broadening.
The BGA review, which focused on 2001 through 2011 and enlisted data from the State Board of Elections and the State Board of Education, found that:
- Just over 200 current and now-former state legislators awarded more than 1,200 scholarships to students with the same last name and home address as campaign donors responsible for more than 3,600 donations – to an array of state and local candidates and political funds – totaling $1.6 million.
- Roughly a third of those 1,200 scholarships – or 351 – went to families that made donations directly to the awarding legislator’s campaign.
- Another 20 percent of the scholarships – or 258 – went to families that donated to other legislators.
- Thirty-six legislators awarded at least 10 scholarships to families that gave money to state or local candidates and political funds.
- Seventy-two scholarships went to families that donated money to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the most of any campaign. Of those 72 tuition waivers, 20 were awarded by her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).
Overall, the BGA analyzed more than 13,000 legislative scholarships and 1.5 million campaign contributions between 2001 and 2011.
Under the expiring program, all 177 state senators and representatives had the power to award two full-tuition four-year college scholarships annually. The only rule: students must live in the district of the sponsoring legislator and be destined for state-run institutions such as the University of Illinois, Illinois State University and Chicago State University.
Legislators also have divvied up the scholarships so that, for instance, eight students each receive one-year tuition waivers.
At the top of the list of the 36 legislators who awarded at least 10 scholarships to families of donors were state Rep. Michael McAuliffe (R-Chicago), state Rep. Angelo “Skip” Saviano (R-Elmwood Park) and former state Sen. James DeLeo (D-Chicago). Each of them awarded 39 scholarships to the families of campaign donors, though fewer than half of those donors contributed directly to the lawmaker responsible for their family member’s scholarship.
However, Saviano and Michael Madigan each granted 19 scholarships to individuals whose families made direct contributions to them, the highest total among all lawmakers.
Neither McAuliffe nor DeLeo could be reached for comment.
In a written statement, Saviano denied politics played a role in his scholarship decisions.
“I have never made my selection of student recipients based on a contribution to my campaign or any other campaign,” said Saviano, who noted that he’s voted to eliminate legislative scholarships “every time it came up because of the perceived and real problems” associated with them.
Like many other lawmakers, Saviano said he used a committee of volunteers to select scholarship recipients. “The criteria for selection included academic achievement, extra-curricular involvement, and financial need and ability to pay for college,” he said.
Steve Brown, a spokesman for Michael Madigan, said there is no link between the recipients of legislative scholarships and the campaign contributions given by their family members.
Brown noted that Michael Madigan has voted four times to abolish the scholarships and added: “The program has been abolished. This is another tortured effort to beat a dead horse.”
Natalie Bauer, a spokesman for Lisa Madigan, stressed that the attorney general had no involvement in the legislative scholarship program.
“When she was a state senator, she never awarded a legislative scholarship, and in her three terms as [attorney general], she hasn’t made any calls, sent any letters, made any requests or advocated on anyone’s behalf to receive a legislative scholarship,” Bauer said via email.
Michael Madigan was involved with many of the families who contributed to Citizens for Lisa Madigan and received legislative scholarships. He awarded 20 of the 72 scholarships they received. He also received more than $43,000 in campaign contributions from the families – nearly three times more than what they contributed to Lisa Madigan.
This story was written and reported by BGA Senior Investigator Alden Loury. He can be reached at (312) 821-9036 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.