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Addressing prohibited activities for public officials: What is allowed?

ETHICS 2.27

Springfield, IL - The Illinois Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform addressed prohibited activities for public officials Thursday morning.

Members heard background information on current practices from Lynn Patton of the Illinois Attorney General's Office and Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole.

Patton leads the Public Access and Opinions Division and also serves as the Administrative Counsel for the Attorney General. She says her department frequently addresses concerns of compatibility of offices and the Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act. Patton also addressed the Common Law Doctrine of Incompatibility of Offices. The common law principle limits individuals from holding two public offices at the same time if they conflict. As an example, Patton mentioned judges are not allowed to hold office in units of public government, school boards or political party. She also provided a similar conflict related to the state's top ethics group.

"...The State Officials and Employees Ethics Act states that a person is not eligible to serve as the Commissioner of the Executive Ethics Commission if that person is a state officer or employee," said Patton.

But Patton noted the state's Constitution and statutes do not address "every conceivable combination of public offices." That's where things can get complicated for anyone trying to call out individuals holding two offices. Do the duties of both offices conflict so the holder of one cannot fully and faithfully discharge from the other? Patton says this is the issue her department addressed the most when individuals ask office compatibility questions.

Addressing financial interests

She says the most common conflict of interest is seen when individuals work for two public entities with the ability to contract with each other. Section Three of the Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act prohibits elected officials from entering into any contracts or acting upon proposals that they have financial interest in. Patton says Attorney General opinions have consistently found the language in this provision only applies to contracts or agreements for the local government an individual serves or another entity the official is affiliated with. She explained a violation of Section Three of the Act is a Class 4 Felony. Patton mentioned the Attorney General's office can only issue opinions on these cases and it's a tough task to address every office across the state.

"Illinois has more units of local government and school districts than any others in the union. I think at this point we're up to around 8,000 between units of local government and school districts. For us to monitor the activities of 8,000 units of local government is virtually impossible," Patton explained.

Working as lobbyists

The Commission also heard a further breakdown of dual office holder regulations from the Illinois Municipal League. Brad Cole says there are restrictions on officials also working as lobbyists. He says the Lobbyist Registration Act provides registered lobbyists may hold elected office. Individuals cannot lobby within their own local government, but Cole explained there are external restrictions that could be subject to challenge.

"That's where we get an issue if you are an elected official, can you be a lobbyist lobbying other entities? Can you be a municipal trustee and have a job as a federal lobbyist," said Cole.

But how many local elected officials in Illinois also work as lobbyists? Cole says there are numerous elected officials registered as state and federal lobbyists.

"You can't really pass a law to make people follow the law. The law is there to be followed. But if you have things that you're concerned about that we may be able to provide guidance or support on, we are most interested in doing that," explained Cole.

Deadline around the corner

The Commission has roughly a month left to compile suggestions they have received from several groups into a report for the Governor and General Assembly. Members know they face a hard task to make solid reforms to the existing ethics laws following constant reports of corruption in Illinois politics.

"We're looking at some laws that sometimes are a little ambiguous of where things fall," said House Majority Leader and Commission Co-Chair Greg Harris. "What falls in this definition? So we're clearing that up so that we know and the public knows when things are right and when things are wrong."

"They should all be designed in a way that allows for ethical government to be the top priority," added Rep. Patrick Windhorst (R-Metropolis).

Members are scheduled to discuss ethics in procurement next week.

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Mike Miletich

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