Medill Watchdog Follow: Lobbying While Elected
The constituents of State Rep. Maria Antonia (Toni) Berrios, D., Chicago, may not have been clamoring for the bill she introduced in 2007 to permit more valuable prizes in mechanical crane games, the ones where players manipulate a claw to snare stuffed animals.
But if the bill was not a rallying cry for the public, it was a victory for the the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Assocation, which was paying the lobbying firm of Joseph Berrios, Toni’s father, to help them win favorable legislation and beat away burdensome proposed laws.
It was one of many times since taking office in 2003 that Toni Berrios reliably supported causes favored by clients of the firm co-owned by her father Joseph, the Cook County Democratic party chief, a continuing Medill Watchdog investigation shows. Other lawmakers also have relatives who lobby on legislation that create apparent conflicts. (To look up all lobbyists registered in Illinois and who they work for, click here.)
The state legislative inspector general, Thomas J. Homer, last year warned legislators: “Our current inability to address alleged and recurring conflicts of interests, due to weak or non-existent laws, threatens to undermine effective action to curb abuses.”
But legislators ended their session in May without even considering the merits of a bill that would have tightened the laws to create sanctions for legislators who vote in the interests of themselves, family members or business partners. “It’s business as usual,” said Kyle J. McCarter, R., Lebanon, the co-sponsor of the stalled bill.
The issue was highlighted in a two-part report in January by Medill Watchdog at Northwestern University and Chicago Public Media that identified repeated instances in which state and local officials supported measures that would help the interests of clients of their own, their family members or business partners.
“This is a bill that would make a substantive difference,” McCarter said in an interview. “It’s a bill that should have been taken seriously, but wasn’t.”
Legislative leadership never pushed the bill, leaving it to die without consideration on its merits. A similar fate befell a bill by State Rep. Fred Crespo, D., Schaumburg, to bar Illinois elected officials at the state or local level from working as lobbyists for private interests while serving as lawmakers.
Nor did the legislative leaders even take a step far short of getting a law passed: Reassigning members to committees to at least minimize the potential for conflicts.
Representatives for House Majority Leader Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton said neither man saw the need for new legislation. They similarly shrug off the idea of making committee reassignments to avoid conflicts; their representatives say that appointments are traditionally given by seniority, and contend it is up to legislators themselves to avoid conflicts of interest.
“Members are responsible to police themselves,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said in an interview. Brown added that if individual members had conflicts, that was a matter that Homer or other officials could take up – despite Homer’s contention that weak laws left him unable to address such problems.
Last year McCarter, the sponsor of the unsuccessful bill that would have addressed Homer’s concerns, had a physical altercation with state Sen. Mike Jacobs, after McCarter questioned Jacobs’ role in pushing the smart-grid utility legislation. The smart-grid bill was championed by the state’s largest utility, ComEd, which employed Mike Jacobs’ father, former Senator Denny Jacobs, as a lobbyist.
But Mike Jacobs remains head of the Senate energy committee, a key post for bills involving the utilities.
The Medill Watchdog review identified 15 times when Toni Berrios aligned herself with clients of her father’s firm as she cast votes in committee. Joseph Berrios was a registered lobbyist until the start of 2011, and remains co-owner with former state Rep. Sam Panayotovich of the lobbying firm B-P Consultants Inc., state records show.
Toni Berrios has sat on both the gaming and executive committees, where bills of interest to B-P Consultants Inc. clients, especially the Illinois Coin Machine Operators, often were assigned.
The crane bill, for example, was assigned to the gaming committee, where she voted for the bill. And when the proposal came back from the Senate, under a different bill number, it was assigned to the executive committee, where she supported the bill again.
A spokesman for the coin machine operators said the industry believed better prizes could entice more customers. During floor debate on the House floor, Berrios explained of the prizes, “Usually, it’s like a cheap teddy bear. At least if it goes up to $25, it’ll be a little bit of a nicer gift.”
The bill passed both houses, but then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued a veto. Berrios filed a House motion to override the veto, which passed and the bill became law in October 2007.
House Speaker Madigan, who oversees committee assignments, has a close working relationship with Joseph Berrios, both politically and professionally. While Joseph Berrios chairs the county Democratic party, Madigan chairs the state Democratic party. Madigan is a tax lawyer, whose firm often has represented clients before the Cook County Board of Review, on which Berrios sat before taking office as assessor in late 2010.
In March 2009, B-P Consultants registered as the lobbyist for the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, five days before Toni Berrios voted in committee against a bill setting harsh automatic penalties for any liquor licensee convicted of gambling violations. Later on its website, the ILBA listed the defeat of that bill among its legislative victories: “The ILBA, B-P Consultants and many coalition partners worked to defeat harmful legislation and pass favorable legislation.”
The Coin Machine operators had strongly pushed the 2009 law authorizing video poker machines in Illinois, a bill that Toni Berrios supported. But getting machines licensed and operating was a slow process. Fearing further delay, the coin machine operators opposed a 2011 bill that would have amended the video gaming act; when that bill came up for vote in executive committee on May 27, 2011, it passed 8-3 over the opposition of Toni Berrios.
There also was the hand of B-P Consultants in the 2006 vote to limit local communities from taxing vending machines, a bill that the chairman of the vending machine association legislative committee takes credit on the association’s website for writing.
Joseph Berrios’ lobbying firm registered to represent the association, the Illinois Automatic Merchandising Council, on Jan. 6, 2006. Less than a month later, Toni Berrios was listed as the chief co-sponsor of the bill. It was assigned to the executive committee on which Berrios sat, and she voted in committee for the bill Feb. 15, 2006. The following month, in debate on the House floor, Berrios said the bill “is needed by the vending industry,” calling it “their bill.”
Assessor Berrios’ spokeswoman noted that Berrios did not renew his registration in 2011 after being elected in 2010, and said he continues to try to sell his share of the company he owns with Panayotovich. Representatives for both Toni Berrios and her father insist that he did not, even while an active lobbyist, work to win his daughter’s support.
“He does not attempt to influence his daughter on any legislative issue – now or ever,” said Kelley Quinn, Berrios’ spokeswoman.
For years Mike McAuliffe (R., Chicago) has served on committees, including transportation, that impact the clients of his wife, Kim Morreale, a former state transportation official who now has a lobbying and public relations firm.
McAuliffe has also served on the health care license committee, and previously served on the pay day loan subcommittee. His wife’s firm, Morreale Public Affairs Group, represented AmeriCash, a pay day lender, and has represented transportation companies.
On occasion, McAuliffe recused himself from those bills, but at other points he voted to support bills that furthered the interests of his wife’s clients. McAuliffe, in an email statement, said, “If at any time a bill comes before a committee that I am a member, I will recuse myself if there is a conflict of interest. Obviously, if there was a way that we could legislate and define conflicts of interest, I would be open to exploring that.”
Outside experts say it is past time to curtail the potential for abuse such conflicts pose.
Kent Redfield, a former state legislative staff member who serves as a research fellow at the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield, said it would be a simple matter for leaders to require committee members to disclose conflicts as they arise, and to reassign them accordingly. He said it is “not good enough” for officials to cling to the “way it has always been done. People are convinced the system is rigged,” he said, adding, “The appearance of corruption is as corrosive as corruption itself.”
Research for this Medill Watchdog report was provided by interns:
Sara Arazoza, Alexandra Arkin, Rachelle Blidner, Karen Chen, Emily Chow, Matthew Connolly, Katherine Connor, Sarah Freishtat, Daniel Mescher, Fenit Nirappil, Lily Oberman, Katie Park, Elena Schneider, Bob Spoerl, James Walsh, Nancy Xu and Alan Yu