At the same time that the town wields subjective control over how it selects vendors, the Stephens family has regularly asked those vendors to contribute to its political funds.
An analysis by Medill and the Tribune studied donors who gave at least $10,000 to either of three political funds controlled by the family from 2007 through 2011. Excluding donations made directly by family members, the analysis found that 57 of 73 donors — about 8 in 10 — had ties to village business.
Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, called the correlation “truly amazing.”
”It raises concerns because the appearance is that people who give money have an advantage,” Redfield said. “There is also a concern that this drives up people’s cynicism and lack of trust.”
The last mayoral opponent, Watrach, said in a recent interview that, as a businessman in Rosemont, he felt pressured to give, and his refusal sparked retribution that led him to try to unseat Stephens.
The mayor denies anyone is pressured, and he dismissed Watrach’s allegation as political sour grapes.
Many top donors either did not return messages or declined to comment. But of those who did, none said they felt pressured.
“We give back to the community that gives us work,” said John Vahey, owner of a construction firm that has contributed $44,000 to Stephens family political funds in the last five years.
Giving even more was Krimson Valley Landscape Contractors. During those five years, it gave more than $100,000 and got $6.5 million in work. Owner Michael Balleto said the firm gave Rosemont officials so much money because “they develop great benefits for the community and the residents.”
Balleto doesn’t enjoy those benefits directly — he doesn’t live in Rosemont — but he said that’s irrelevant.
Such large donations from Krimson and other vendors helped the Stephens family far outpace the fundraising of most other suburban leaders — nearly $9 million since 1999.
Illinois doesn’t stop local contractors from giving to local officials. Municipalities can pass stricter rules — Chicago, for example, restricts the size of such donations — but Rosemont and many other towns don’t.
The Stephenses’ fundraising could have been reduced by a 2009 state law that limited contributions to $5,000 from an individual and $10,000 from a company. But this year another Stephens-tied fund was set up — a special political action committee — that is allowed under state law to take in larger contributions.
In its first three months, that fund raised $300,000. That boosted the total take of family-tied political funds to the most they’ve ever raised in the first quarter of any year, for at least as far back as the state’s data can show.
All of that campaign cash has provided yet another financial well for the Stephens family to tap.
The funds paid more than $1 million since 1999 to a firm called Braile Services for fundraising efforts. The firm was long run by Bradley Stephens but was transferred to his brother — Rosemont’s public safety superintendent — in 2007. In essence, the political funds controlled by the family have been paying a firm started by the family to raise more money for the funds controlled by the family.
Bradley Stephens said some of the money goes to charities. But another of the funds’ missions over the years has been to build the tiny town’s clout.
For Republicans looking to match Democratic fundraising in the state, the Stephenses can be a key ally.
“Every major candidate always goes to the mayor and tells them their story and sees if they can get financial support,” said state Rep. Angelo “Skip” Saviano, an Elmwood Park Republican mentored by Donald E. Stephens. “That is just a fact of life, and that is the political reality that we live in.”
That clout came in handy in 2010 when Rosemont got a seat at the table for discussions about state subsidies.