Billionaire Christopher Cline’s coal mining company, Foresight Energy Services, gives a mountain of money to Illinois politicians. Since mid-January, the company poured almost $70,000 into the political committees of Democratic and Republican state lawmakers, Illinois State Board of Elections records show.
The St. Louis-based company, which owns four coal mines in southern and central Illinois, gave more than $2 million to Illinois politicians and campaigns since 2009, state records show.
One recent contribution caught our eye at the Better Government Association: A political committee controlled since 2013 by new Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Wayne Rosenthal registered a $2,000 contribution in February from Foresight, a company he now regulates. (Previously, Foresight gave political funds tied to Rosenthal almost $25,000 in recent years.)
The $2,000 contribution to Downstate GOP, a committee Rosenthal started two years ago as a state legislator, was recorded by state officials Feb. 20. That was three days after Rosenthal was confirmed by the Illinois Senate to take over at DNR. Gov. Bruce Rauner nominated Rosenthal to the state-government post in January.
As head of the DNR, Rosenthal oversees the Illinois Office of Mines and Minerals, which provides mining permits to Foresight and other coal companies, and is responsible for ensuring the health and safety of thousands of workers in coal mining, oil and gas and related industries. At the time of the contribution, Downstate GOP listed Rosenthal as its chairman, State Board of Elections records show.
In an interview, Rosenthal said his name should have been removed by the campaign committee because he’s no longer involved with it, and he said he did not know that Foresight recently donated the money.
“I’m totally unaware of that,” he said.
Rosenthal said he stepped down from Downstate GOP in January around the same time Rauner named the then-Republican legislator to head DNR. However, the State Board of Elections wasn’t notified of any changes until the BGA began inquiring about the contribution. As of just a few days ago, Rosenthal was still listed as chairman of Downstate GOP.
Wayne Rosenthal /Illinois General Assembly
Foresight is a dominant coal player in Illinois. Neither Cline nor Foresight representatives returned calls seeking comment.
While Rosenthal says his involvement with Downstate GOP ended, he makes no apologies for his support of the coal industry as a legislator.
In addition to the recent contribution, state campaign finance records show that Foresight gave almost $25,000 in total since 2010 to two committees controlled by Rosenthal – Friends of Wayne Rosenthal and Downstate GOP. Rosenthal was a Republican state representative from the central Illinois town of Morrisonville when Rauner nominated him for the DNR post in January.
Rosenthal said he took money from Foresight in recent years because the mining industry is a big piece of the local economy in his Illinois House district, which includes two active coal mines. Rosenthal said past donations won’t influence his actions at DNR and, in fact, can’t influence them – state rules govern the agency’s actions.
Foresight spreads its money around. It gave $10,000 to Rauner in October when the Republican was a candidate for governor. Foresight was listed by Rauner as one of the top contributors to the governor’s inauguration, giving as much as $100,000 to help fund the event.
Last year, Foresight contributions landed DNR officials in hot water. Michael Woods, who was director of the mines and minerals office, resigned last April after it was learned Foresight contributed money to a political fund he chaired. Woods declined to comment. Another DNR employee was fired and later reinstated in 2014, in part, for an incident involving a Foresight contribution to the employee’s political committee.
As a candidate, Rauner blasted former Gov. Pat Quinn’s DNR, which he said “has seen scandal after scandal,” according to a published report.
A DNR official stepped down last year after a BGA investigation into another matter.
Since 2009, Foresight gave almost $150,000 to Quinn’s political committees, state records show. Other top politicians were recipients of the company’s money. Just this month, Foresight gave almost $11,000 to a campaign committee for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), $5,000 to a campaign committee controlled by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), and $5,000 apiece to campaign funds benefitting Illinois House Republicans and Illinois Senate Republicans.
As for the contribution to Rosenthal’s committee, Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said in an email: “Our understanding is that this was an oversight by the Downstate GOP, and any insinuation otherwise is the BGA trying to manufacture a controversy where there isn’t one.”
State elections officials require that they be notified of any change to the leadership structure of a political committee within 10 days but there is no penalty for failing to do so, said Sharon Steward, director of the division of campaign disclosure for the elections board.
Downstate GOP was formed in February 2013 “to protect the values and interests of downstate families by advancing the political cause of candidates,” according to a state filing. The committee gave more than $200,000 to Republican candidates and political committees since 2013, state records show.
Another state lawmaker, C.D. Davidsmeyer, now chairs Downstate GOP, Rosenthal said. Davidsmeyer said Foresight gives to the campaign committee because the company “just wants to be heard like anybody else – especially with what seems like an all-out war on coal these days,” Davidsmeyer said, referring to efforts by environmentalists to publicize damage caused by coal emissions and mining.
Foresight’s coal is primarily used to produce electricity at power plants or steam for industrial boilers.
This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times web site – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9033.