Conflicts of interest? It's legal in Illinois

Lawmakers who lobby walk minefield of conflicts

January 5, 2012

Fredric Tulsky and John Sullivan

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(Photo by Jose More)
State Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-Moline) was chief sponsor of a ComEd bill for which his father lobbied.

In most states and municipalities government officials who vote to spend taxpayer dollars on proposals that also put money in their own pockets as lobbyists could be accused of illegal conflicts of interest. Not in Illinois.  

Thanks to state and local ethics laws riddled with loopholes, it was legal for Jack Dorgan, a village trustee in suburaban Rosemont, to vote last year to award a lucrative contract to a client of his Springfield lobbying firm.  

Dorgan is not alone in his dual roles. Elected officials at every level in Illinois, from the village board to the state legislature, can use their positions to benefit paying clients or even family members, according to an examination of thousands of documents by Medill Watchdog, a journalism program at Northwestern University.

Medill reviewed statements of economic interest filed by officials in Cook County, registrations by lobbyists, legislation, ordinances and public actions. According to the records, 14 officials in Cook County over the past three years were registered as lobbyists for an array of private clients who did business at the state, county or local levels.

When elected officials double as lobbyists it can create confusion for lawmakers, said state Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates). “When I see them at a hearing in the Capitol, I often can’t tell if they’re here for their constituents or for their paying clients,” he said.

No laws are being broken. Officials are permitted to work as lobbyists, and also to vote and otherwise act on matters that directly benefit their lobbying clients.

While laws vary widely, some states, like Indiana, forbid lawmakers from lobbying at all, a Medill survey of 50 states found. Many others, like New York and California, bar officials from voting or acting on any matter that would help their clients.

Illinois lawmakers do not work full time, which some critics say creates an incentive to find additional sources of income. Other states with large populations established full-time legislatures years ago.

"Permitting officials to hold outside jobs is a really bad idea," said Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law profesor and former White House ethics counsel. "People think it's cheaper to have part time officials, but it costs people a lot of money in other ways."

Illinois law bans state legislators from lobbying their colleagues and other state officials. But the same laws do not prevent them from acting as lobbyistws at the local level where each community or local government body sets its own rules.

"We let officials do things that other cities and towns wouldn’t,” said David Orr, the Cook County clerk. "The current law just doesn't cut it."

In Rosemont in the past year, Dorgan, a prominent Republican, played a key role as village trustee in awarding a $2.4 million contract to his lobbying client, Christopher B. Burke Engineering.

Records show that Burke Engineering paid Dorgan at least $1,200 while he was lobbying the Illinois Toll Highway Authority and at the same time the authority was working with the village to jointly build a $25 million off-ramp. Burke Engineering had hired Dorgan-McPike & Associates, Dorgan's Springfield lobbying firm, to represent it before the tollway and other state agencies, gaining an advocate with both state influence and a vote on the village board.

In November 2010, Dorgan's multiple roles overlapped. He accompanied his lobbying client, Burke, to a meeting with the Tollway Authority -- the target of his lobbying activities -- while also representing the village, records show. The Rosemont mayor and attorney were also at the meeting.

When the Tollway Authority completed its draft agreement with Rosemont six months later, Burke Engineering was designated as the construction engineer, at the village’s request, tollway officials said.

The agreement refers to Burke Engineering as “Village Engineer of the Village.” But Peter Coblentz, Rosemont’s village attorney, said that the village’s relationship with Burke’s firm is informal. “Burke is just who the village hires whenever it has work,” Coblentz said. “We have used them for many, many years.”

At the Rosemont village board meeting five days later, Dorgan made a motion to award the no-bid contract to Burke. The $2.4 million motion passed unanimously.

Dorgan sees no problem with his dual roles. “Obviously, if there was a conflict, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. He said he disclosed his clients as required under state law and had discussed it with Coblentz.

A spokesman for Burke said the lobbying relationship with Dorgan is “completely transparent.”

Dorgan has long been a prominent elected official in Illinois. He lobbied on behalf of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association, headed by William Cellini, who was recently convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion.

Dorgan is a member of the Republican Party State Central Committee.

“I’m held to a much higher standard,” he said.  “If you get into trouble with the IRS, you get a fine. If I make the same mistake, I’d go to prison. It’s a whole different ballgame.”

Many ethics experts say public officials should not be allowed to work as lobbyists. “It ought to be prohibited,” said Patricia Salkin, director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School in New York. “The roles are too intertwined.”

Rep. Crespo introduced legislation a year ago to prohibit Illinois officials from lobbying, but it died in the rules committee.

Illinois statutes give state officials wide latitude to lobby. The state ethics law, passed in 1967, directs lawmakers who confront potential conflicts to “consider the possibility of eliminating the conflict.” If a conflict is unavoidable, the lawmaker should “consider the possibility of abstaining.”

If a lawmaker chooses not to abstain, there is no penalty.

Thomas Homer, the state's legislative inspector general, said he has little recourse. “It looks bad, but there isn’t anything I can do because the law allows it,” he said.

State Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago) showed himself to be adept at working within the rules that govern lobbying by public officials. Burke is the brother of powerful Chicago alderman Ed Burke; he is not related to Christopher B. Burke, the engineer.

City lobbying records show Dan Burke was paid $5,000 to lobby Chicago's City Hall for the Chicago Roofing Contractors Association, the local wing of the industry group that represents roofing contractors throughout the state.

In February 2005, Burke co-sponsored a bill backed by the association of state roofing contractors that sought to protect its member companies from competition. Burke said his sponsorship was not a conflict of interest.

Speaking of the line separating his city lobbying activities and his state legislative actions, Burke said: “It’s murky, of course, but I was careful not to blend the roles.”

Kristen McQueary, Statehouse reporter for WBEZ and the Chicago News Cooperative, contributed reporting.                                                                                               

Frederic N. Tulsky and John Sullivan direct Medill Watchdog, a Northwestern University initiative, to hold public officials accountable through in-depth reporting by students and faculty.

The table of public officials who have doubled as lobbyists, and other additional materials, can be found at www.medillwatchdog.org