In 2009, state Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) was among the members of the General Assembly to vote to give the United Neighborhood Organization an unprecedented $98 million state grant to build charter schools in Chicago.
But UNO wasn’t the only group that ended up benefiting from the grant, which was part of a massive capital spending bill that provided money to infrastructure projects across the state.
Harmon’s law firm did, too – collecting at least $35,000 for legal work it subsequently performed for UNO, according to copies of invoices and payment records obtained from the State of Illinois.
What’s more, the Better Government Association found the firm, Burke Burns & Pinelli, had done legal work for UNO prior to Harmon’s June 2009 vote.
This means Harmon not only voted on a measure ultimately benefiting his firm, he also voted on a measure benefiting a past (and continuing) client of his law firm.
There is no state law governing how a lawmaker should vote in a potential conflict of interest situation. The Illinois Governmental Ethics Act advises officials to abstain from voting when there’s a real or perceived conflict, but there are no clear penalties if that advice isn’t followed.
“Typically members will stand up and say they have a conflict of interest and abstain,” says Legislative Inspector General Tom Homer.
In an email to the BGA, Harmon says he did nothing unethical in voting for a capital bill that funneled millions of dollars to UNO and “hundreds of [other] infrastructure programs for the benefit of citizens across Illinois.”
(The UNO state grant was part of a $31 billion capital-spending plan, called “Illinois Jobs Now!”, which enjoyed strong bi-partisan support and provided funds for road and bridge repairs, high-speed rail and hundreds of other infrastructure projects throughout the state.)
Harmon says, “It is my personal practice as a legislator-lawyer, whenever I have reason to believe the work of the firm poses a conflict for me, to disclose the existence of a conflict to the Senate and, when appropriate, abstain from voting. My vote for the capital bill was … consistent with this practice.”
It’s not the first time Harmon’s legal and legislative careers have collided.
A previous BGA investigation found that in 2012 Harmon supported gaming expansion legislation that included language Burke Burns helped craft on behalf of a client, the City of Des Plaines, where Rivers Casino is located.
Gov. Pat Quinn ultimately vetoed the bill, which would’ve reduced the suburb’s casino-related tax payments to the state by $120 million over 30 years.
That same investigation also revealed that since Harmon joined Burke Burns as a partner in January 2005 the small Chicago law firm has secured at least $6.3 million in legal work from state agencies that receive funding and are overseen by the General Assembly. At the time, the firm said it had long-standing relationships with many state agencies and that Harmon had nothing to do with the contracts.
Burke Burns has worked with UNO since at least July 2007, when it acted as the Latino community group’s legal counsel in a $16 million bond sale, according to Illinois Finance Authority records.
Burke Burns still works with UNO, with the law firm providing legal advice and handling Freedom of Information Act requests, among other matters.
UNO has paid Burke Burns more than $128,000 since Jan. 1, 2012, according to UNO financial records. That’s on top of the $35,000 funded by the state grant. The $128,000 did not come from that grant, though UNO charter schools receive a majority of funding from local, state and federal taxpayers.
It doesn’t appear Harmon has worked or is working directly with UNO. He says he’s never represented the organization and his name isn’t listed on Burke Burns invoices that the BGA obtained from the state via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Mary Patricia Burns, President of Burke Burns & Pinelli / BGA photo
Those same invoices show Burke Burns advised UNO on, among other things, the acquisition of a development parcel in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood. The site, at 51st Street and Homan Avenue, is now home to the UNO Soccer Academy campus.
It couldn’t be determined what originally led UNO to hire Burke Burns.
An UNO spokesman declined to comment. The law firm’s president, Mary Patricia Burns, didn’t return messages.
What’s known is that both Burke Burns and UNO have strong ties to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).
City of Chicago filings show Burke Burns was a lobbying client of Madigan’s law firm in 2001 and 2002. And Burke Burns and its partners have contributed more than $287,000 since 1994 to political committees controlled by Madigan, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records.
Harmon is linked to Madigan, too – Harmon served as the speaker’s deputy legal counsel before becoming a state senator in 2003. Harmon has since risen to become one of the Senate’s top Democrats, holding a leadership position called president pro tempore and chairing the General Assembly’s influential Executive Committee.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter and Patrick Rehkamp. They can be reached at (312) 821-9035 or firstname.lastname@example.org.