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Heavyweight lobbyists hold 'oversized' influence

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Heavyweight lobbyists hold 'oversized' influence

State Senate President John Cullerton is a registered lobbyist. [Photo/Jose More)

Elected officials who lobby face conflicts of interest when matters coming before them as office holders also affect their paying clients.

In Cook County, the list of elected officials who have also lobbied includes three county commissioners, two Chicago aldermen, the Cook County Democratic Party chairman and even John Cullerton, the state senate president since 2009.

Those numbers alarm outside ethics experts.

Cullerton, a powerful Springfield figure, registers as a lobbyist in Cook County and Chicago, where, as a partner in the law firm Thompson Coburn, he occasionally represents clients before government officials. In 2008, the firm’s Web site highlighted Cullerton’s government-relations work.

Cullerton’s press secretary, Rikeesha Phelon, said the work is more lawyering than lobbying — mainly representing clients in legal matters, not on policy issues. Cullerton registers “to make sure his bases are covered in case he needs to contact an alderman or something.”

But a powerful state officeholder who lobbies can carry outsized influence on local officials, who may be reliant on Springfield for financial help, said Judy Nadler, a government ethics fellow at the Markulla Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University: “You’re fooling yourself if you think you can wear those two hats and not have it influence the outcome.”

Larry Suffredin, a member of the Cook County Board, said that he responds to the problem by scrupulously abstaining on matters involving his legal clients and even companies in which he owns stock.

But abstention can cause its own problems, leaving constituents disenfranchised when the people they elect do not vote on key issues. Suffredin, who has lobbied in Springfield and Chicago on behalf of scores of clients, from big pharmaceutical companies to McCormick Place contractors to gambling companies, abstained from at least 30 votes over the past five years, county records show.

That included votes on a $50 million Motorola contract with the juvenile detention center, county health contracts with GE Medical Systems and Abbott Laboratories, and tax increases on food, beverages and hotel stays.

Some ethics experts say the solution is to bar lobbying by public officials.

“These kind of conflicts should not be permitted,” said Paula Franzese, a Seton Hall law professor and former chairwoman of the New Jersey ethics commission.

Suffredin said that is a “knee-jerk reaction,” and he ultimately answers to voters on whether his outside work is a problem.

“The people can decide if they want you to be there or not,” Suffredin said.

Kristen McQueary contributed reporting. She is state government reporter for WBEZ and the Chicago News Cooperative.

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

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