A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Kirk, Giannoulias Misstate Facts in Debate


The Illinois Senate candidates strayed from the facts on Sunday’s "Meet the Press," which featured a debate between Republican Mark Kirk, a House member, and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer.

Bridge Claims Go Nowhere

Kirk exaggerated his role in combating the "bridge to nowhere," a name given interchangeably to two Alaska bridge projects that have become symbols for government pork:

Kirk: "The Kirk Amendment passed in the House … attacked the bridge to nowhere, even though it was in a Republican district … and now it’s actually the bridges to nowhere will not be built."

We wrote about the "bridges to nowhere," the Gravina Island bridge and the Knik Arm bridge, several times during the 2008 presidential campaign. Originally slated to receive earmarked money in a highway appropriations bill, the bridges later had their earmarks, but not their funding, stripped: Alaska still got the money, but not specifically designated for the bridge projects. But it’s not accurate for Kirk to claim credit for that, and it’s certainly not accurate to say that "the bridges to nowhere will not be built." One of them is being built right now.

The amendment to which Kirk refers was part of a 2006 transportation bill making appropriations for 2007. That amendment specified that "none of the funds made available or limited by this Act" could be used for the Gravina Island or Knik Arm bridges. But the bridges had received their funding from a bill that passed in 2005. Another 2005 bill released the money to Alaska transportation generally.

Then-Gov. Sarah Palin did cite lack of federal funds as one of the reasons that the Gravina project was scrapped: "It’s clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island," she said in 2007. But that’s not thanks to Kirk. His amendment was struck out of the version of the bill reported in the Senate, and at any rate that bill never became law — Congress adjourned without passing it. The Knik Arm bridge, meanwhile, is still going strong. Construction began in 2009, and it’s slated to open in 2011.

Giannoulias countered by saying that Kirk "voted for the bridge to nowhere twice." It’s true that Kirk voted for the highway bill that originally allotted the earmarks — only eight House members voted against it. Kirk’s campaign points out that this was a huge bill, and "nobody knew [the bridges] were in there," but that’s not the case. Sen. John McCain, for instance, made a speech in the Senate denouncing earmarks in the highway bill, including the bridges. Kirk may not have known that the bridges were in the bill, but that’s not because nobody was looking. In fact, press coverage of the bridges had begun a year earlier, in 2004, when the New York Times reported on appropriations for the projects in an earlier transportation bill.

In a fact-check on a Kirk radio ad, Giannoulias says that the other vote on the bridge was "HR3550, Vote 114, 4/2/05." Vote 114 in 2005 was on recognizing the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine; H.R. 3550 was a bill on Parkinson’s research that stalled in committee; and there were no votes on April 2, 2005. Kirk did vote for the conference agreement of the FY 2006 appropriations bill, which gave Alaska the transportation funding it needed to build the bridges. But that conference agreement did not include specific earmarks for the Gravina or Knik Arm bridge, so it would be a stretch to say he "voted for the bridge … twice."

Fun with Votes

Giannoulias claimed that Kirk "voted to increase his own pay six times," but that ignores the fact that Kirk also voted to freeze congressional pay four times.

This spat shows just how easy it is to make misleading statements based on congressional votes. The Giannoulias camp cites six votes in 2001 through 2006, and those votes were seen by some as votes to allow a scheduled pay increase to occur, according to "Congressional Pay and Perks," a book written by Ida A. Brudnick, the author of a Congressional Research Service report on this topic, and Eric Petersen. The book was published by the nonpartisan TheCapitol.net. A vote for the measures had the effect of blocking the introduction of an amendment to cancel the scheduled pay increase for Congress. (Congress is subject to an automatic pay adjustment determined by a formula based on private sector wages — unless Congress votes to cancel or revise the increase.) Brudnick writes: "This action is considered by some to be approval of an increase since the vote had the effect of not allowing Members to offer and consider nongermane amendments to the bill." And she uses similar language to describe each of these six votes. However, she writes that two of those votes (for hopelessly complicated reasons that we won’t go into here) could be perceived to be not strictly about the pay increase. Kirk voted for all six of these measures, and all six passed.

The Kirk camp, meanwhile, lists four votes in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 for measures that froze congressional salaries. The 2010 and 2009 measures  were passed with overwhelming majorities (402-15 and 398-24). In addition to appropriating other funds, the 2006 vote delayed a scheduled 2007 increase until Feb. 15, 2007, and the 2007 vote canceled that year’s pay raise. Those measures passed by votes of 370-20 and 286-140, respectively.

New York Times Didn’t Say That

Kirk claimed that the New York Times had blamed Giannoulias for the collapse of the Democrat’s family’s bank, Broadway Bank.

Kirk: The New York Times’ analysis of Treasurer Giannoulias’ work at the bank showed that it was his decisions that helped lead to this collapse.

Giannoulias responded: "That’s not true."

And he’s right. The Kirk campaign sent us an article that contradicted the Republican candidate. It said: “No one knows for certain how big a role Mr. Giannoulias played in these decisions.” The article, which ran in the Times but was written by David Greising of the Chicago News Cooperative, a nonprofit news organization, was an analysis piece that detailed actions at the bank during Giannoulias’ time there. But Greising only raised questions about Giannoulias’ participation:

Greising, Jan. 30: As Broadway’s top lending officer, he must have influenced the move into construction lending. As a connected family member, he was probably present during discussions of the hot-money play. Certainly, he took part in the family’s decision to take out some $70 million in dividends from the bank in 2007 and 2008, even as it careened toward a consent decree with the F.D.I.C.

Mr. Giannoulias told reporters that a time would come when he could answer questions about what happened at his family’s bank. Here is hoping there is plenty of time, because questions keep mounting faster than the troubles at Broadway Bank.

Tax Returns ‘Public’?

Giannoulias said that "unlike the congressman, I make my tax returns public. Everyone can see what I pay in taxes." This implies that Kirk doesn’t allow press scrutiny of his assets, which isn’t true.

Kirk has allowed reporters to look at his returns, and his campaign sent us two links to articles by persons who had done so. Kirk just doesn’t do it often, or make it easy. One article specifies that Kirk made 10 years of tax returns available for the first time in March of this year, and another says that he won’t allow reporters to make copies. Kirk’s campaign confirms both of those statements, but stresses that Kirk did make his most recent taxes and his previous returns available to reporters who were willing to come and see them.

Small Small-Business Embellishment

Kirk was strictly right, but potentially misleading, when he talked about how many small businesses were affected by recession job losses. He said that "80 percent of the job losses in the great recession" occurred at small businesses.

For total jobs lost, that’s close enough — but only if you count all businesses with fewer than 500 employees as "small" businesses. A March 2010 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 76 percent of gross job losses between December 2007 and June 2009, the official span of the recession, were from businesses with fewer than 500 workers. But looking at net job losses — that is, factoring in job gains during that period — 61 percent of net losses came from firms of this size. For businesses with fewer than 100 employees, the numbers are smaller: 61 percent of gross job losses and only 46 percent of net. On the whole, BLS concluded, firm size was not a major factor: "In the current recession," the bureau wrote, "all firms, small and large alike, have been similarly affected in terms of net job losses. Unlike the previous two recessions, one size grouping does not contribute significantly more than the other to the economic decline." It is true, though, that the smallest firms saw the earliest job losses.

Kirk’s campaign told us that the representative got his figures from the payroll and human resources company ADP, and compared January 2010 figures with January 2008 figures. But those aren’t official numbers — they’re sourced from ADP’s payroll processing clients — and the recession Kirk refers to technically ended in June 2009.

At Least One Inconsistency?

"Meet the Press" host David Gregory asked Giannoulias about conflicting information on when exactly he left the family bank. Gregory read from a Chicago Tribune article that said: "Saying he left in ‘05 gives Giannoulias maximum distance from the bank’s questionable lending practices, the April takeover by federal regulators and other controversies such as a loan by the bank to convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko in early 2006. But by reporting that he worked at least 500 hours at Broadway in 2006, Giannoulias was able to get a break that helped him avoid paying federal income tax in 2009." Gregory asked, "When did you leave, and did you get a tax break you shouldn’t have?" Giannoulias responded:

Giannoulias: There are — there have been no inconsistencies in anything I’ve said. I left day-to-day operations in ‘05 and I fully left the bank in 2006.

Has he been consistent? An early 2006 article suggests otherwise. He gave an interview sometime after March 1, 2006, with the Windy City Times, a gay and lesbian publication. In the interview, published March 15, 2006, he says:

Giannoulias, March 2006: My parents founded Broadway Bank; over the past four years, we’ve more than doubled in asset size. I’m senior loan officer and vice president, so I oversee a $600 million loan department. I’m also chief investment officer and invest about $150 million.

When we asked Scott Burnham, a spokesman for the Giannoulias campaign, about that 2006 article, he told us: "He had left day-to-day operations in 2005 and was no longer taking on new clients or bringing in new business. He left [the bank] entirely in 2006, which is reflected in his tax returns that have been made public."