Is It a Conflict of Interest? Yes, but It’s Legal

New York Times –

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 Rosemont, to vote last year to award a lucrative contract to a client of his Springfield lobbying firm.

Mr. 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 elected 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 Representative Fred Crespo, Democrat of 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.

Most other states prohibit such conflicts. 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. Most 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 professor 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.”

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