While the Citizens Utility Board may be prohibited by law from backing candidates for public office, there's no law barring CUB leaders from backing politicians.
The group's executive director has for a decade made campaign contributions to a politician who serves on a private board created by the state legislature, which funneled money back to CUB in the form of grants in 2013 and 2014.
David Kolata, who has served as CUB's executive director since 2005, has donated $7,100 in total to Chicago's 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly.
The amount is statistically insignificant as Reilly raised more than $1 million in the third quarter and had more than $900,000 on hand in his campaign committee at the end of September. However, the Democratic city councilman serves on the board of Illinois Science Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF), an organization created in 2011 by way of the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act as a private not-for-profit organization, funded by ComEd and Ameren.
Financial support for ISEIF is quasi tax payer-based in that the Illinois Public Utilities Act directs how much the utilities collect from customers and contribute to ISEIF. The group gives grants to clean energy proponents such as CUB, which lobbies legislators and litigates against utility companies. In 2013, ISEIF gave CUB $727,320. It also gave an undetermined amount to CUB in 2014.
Also serving on the ISEIF board is CUB attorney Kristin Munsch.
Dan Proft of the Illinois Opportunity Project said he doesn't see Kolata's political contributions to Reilly in a quid pro quo light, because "Kolata is friends with Reilly and they are Democrats."
His criticism is that CUB is "functionally run by Democrats," going back to former Gov. Pat Quinn, who in his role as consumer advocate pushed for the creation of CUB in 1982. The Illinois General Assembly created CUB and directed the organization to represent the interests of residential utility customers by pushing the state’s electric, gas and telephone companies for lower rates and better service.
Proft said the "essence" and "nature" of staffing at the non-governmental organization (NGO) Citizens Utility Board can be viewed in the context of "Chicago Democrats."
"And by the way, that's not to defend the utilities," he said.
Proft has said that despite disputes between CUB and the utility companies, they follow the same ideology.
“You have your progressive left Democrat at CUB versus your big business Democrat at the utilities,” Proft stated in August. “Sometimes they’ll fight. And sometimes if CUB wins, there is some short-term benefit to the taxpayer. But ultimately, they agree to the same paradigm.”
He said that whether the pendulum swings one way for the utilities or the other for CUB, the results are the same - "bad for consumers, business, Illinois."
He also compared them to Chicago's teachers' unions and the mayor's office.
"No one is wearing a white hat," he said. "They are fighting over who should be the central planner in charge. The problem is central planning."
Proft called the intersection of politics, CUB and ISEIF and its leaders "incestuous," and "more evidence to support the thesis that they are appendages of the power structure."
Campaign contribution trail
Kolata's contributions to Reilly, dating from 2005 through this year, comprise 60 percent of all the donations he has made to Illinois politicians and causes - all of which, except a $175 contribution to former Republican state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger in 2003, have gone to Democrats.
In further review of records at the Illinois State Board of Elections site, it shows that Kolata also contributed to the campaigns of former Gov. Pat Quinn before and after CUB was awarded economic development grants through Quinn's office.
In 2009, Kolata contributed $1,300 to Quinn; in 2013, he contributed $500 toward Quinn's unsuccessful re-election bid.
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity awarded CUB $718,000 in 2009 and $782,000 in 2011.
Kolata also donated $200 in 2010 to the campaign of State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), who, as chairperson of the Renewable Energy & Sustainability Committee, is chief sponsor of the controversial Clean Jobs Bill - a proposal that seeks to increase energy efficiency and use of renewable resources, reduce carbon pollution and create jobs, but one which critics say will cost jobs and more money for consumers.
Kolata also has contributed a total of $700 to Attorney General Lisa Madigan in 2002, 2006 and 2009.
Madigan is sympathetic to the renewable energy movement, and recently attended an event supporting the Clean Jobs Bill.
CUB also was the beneficiary of a recent fundraiser at the home of Scott Kluth at the John Hancock building in Chicago on Nov. 2, in which tickets ranging from $500-10,000 were sold to "support CUB's mission to promote clean energy innovation and distributed energy resources."
State Sen. Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) questions the necessity of CUB, calling it a layer of bureaucracy that is not needed.
"Legislators are the ones who are supposed to protect citizens," he said. "If there is a rate hike that's not fair, legislators should be doing their jobs. Or we can hold the Illinois Commerce Commission accountable" to defend rate payers.