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The Watchdogs: Illinois' Government-paid Hired Guns

One government wants something from another one? Hire a lobbyist

By Tim Novak/Chicago Sun-Times with the BGA

CHICAGO — Even as the CTA has slashed bus routes, raised fares and cut costs over the last two years, the financially troubled transit agency found money to hire a politically connected lobbyist -- former U.S. Rep. William Lipinski. The CTA has paid Lipinski more than $418,000 since 2008.

The CTA argues, as do other local governmental bodies that have their own hired guns to lobby other governments, that it's even more important now, when money is tight, to do all it can to try to snag state and federal dollars.

But a review by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association of 36 Chicago area governments that collectively spent more than $7.3 million last year on lobbyists found that:

• The governments' lobbying contracts often go to former elected officials. Among them: Lipinski, former state Rep. Miguel Santiago and former state Rep. Robert Molaro, all Chicago Democrats.

• Many of the governmental bodies -- including the City of Chicago, Cook County, DuPage County and Metra -- have increased spending on lobbyists even as they've cut services or raised taxes or fees in the face of the recession.

• The City of Chicago has lobbyists on its payroll -- and also hires outside lobbyists, under contract. Last year, Mayor Daley paid more than $325,000 to two lobbying firms -- McCann Capitol Advocates in Washington and William Filan Limited in Springfield. At the same time, City Hall also paid a total of $660,000 to seven city employees working as lobbyists. While the Filan firm got the same flat fee as the year before, $85,000, McCann's payments went up 30 percent last year, to $241,541, for lobbying federal officials to support the mayor's O'Hare Airport modernization.

• Daley has another outside lobbyist, William Luking, who has worked for the city for years in Springfield -- even though he hasn't been paid by the city in four years, according to the mayor's office. City officials say they are renegotiating Luking's contract -- which expired six years ago. They say they eventually plan to pay him for the work he has done the last four years. Meanwhile, Luking got paid $193,443 last year as a lobbyist for the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Board of Education, the City Colleges of Chicago and the CTA.

• Many of the government-hired lobbyists don't even file reports to show what they've done for the taxpayers. And they're not required to.

"I would never ask a lobbyist who worked for me to write reports," says former Gov. James Thompson, chairman of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, whose two main lobbyists formerly worked for Winston & Strawn, his law firm.

The authority, which owns U.S. Cellular Field, spent $198,000 on lobbyists last year, including $96,000 paid to Thompson's former law firm colleagues John Nicolay and Tim Dart, who's the brother of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

"You judge them by results," says Thompson. "Did they pass a bill? Did they beat a bill? Did they get our appropriation? ... The Illinois Sports Facilities Authority doesn't have any problems in the General Assembly. We get our appropriation. Nobody tried to combine us with McCormick Place. There was talk of that."

Lipinski tops list

The highest-paid elected-official-turned-lobbyist, according to the Sun-Times/BGA survey, is Lipinski, who as a congressman was the powerful longtime chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He has lucrative contracts with the CTA and Metra.

The CTA paid Lipinski's one-man lobbying firm, Capricorn Communications, $146,651 in 2008, $174,459 last year and $97,185 so far this year. In all, the payments amount to nearly a third of the more than $1.2 million the agency has spent on clout-heavy lobbyists in Springfield and Washington in hopes of chipping away at its $7 billion backlog of projects, including new tracks and new trains.

"One thing he's very involved with is prepping staff and members of Congress on CTA issues and our enormous capital needs," says CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney. "We're competing with transit systems around the country, and it's important for us to be well-positioned. We don't have any staff in Washington."

Metra hired Lipinski last year under a $15,000-a-month contract. The commuter railroad -- which raised fares in 2009 -- paid him $165,000 last year to lobby Congress and the Illinois General Assembly.

"The feature that attracted us to Lipinski is that he is also working for Chicago," Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet says. "He has connections in Washington and Springfield. Part of his goal is to build a regional consensus on the vision for transportation."

Lipinski doesn't file reports to show what he has done for the CTA or Metra.

And he declines to talk about his lobbying business, which he created after retiring from Congress in 2004, quitting after winning the Democratic primary to clear the way for his son, Dan Lipinski, to be elected to the seat, to which he has since been re-elected.

"I don't talk about my lobbying business," Lipinski says. "I let my clients talk about my lobbying business."

His clients are primarily transportation agencies and businesses. In all, they paid him more than $850,000 last year, according to government records and the Open Secrets website run by the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks Washington lobbyists.

His clients often have business with the House Transportation Committee that he headed and whose members now include his son. The congressman says he has never been lobbied by his father.

"As Congressman Lipinski has stated repeatedly, his father does not lobby him on behalf of any of his clients on transportation or any other issues," says Nathaniel Zimmer, the congressman's spokesman. "In these, as in other areas, Congressman Lipinski is focused on doing what is best for his constituents."

Rep. Lipinski has helped get federal money for two of his father's clients:

• $1.5 million last year for the CTA's proposed Circle Line to link existing L lines.

• $700,000 to renovate the Stone Avenue Metra station in LaGrange.

In addition to his lobbying business, the former congressman collects two government pensions. He got $11,698 last year from the Chicago Park District. And the National Taxpayers Union estimates that Lipinski gets an annual pension of $76,500 from Congress, which refuses to divulge its taxpayer-funded pensions.

Hired Guns

When local governments want money from the state or federal government, they often hire lobbyists with political connections, usually former elected officials or retired government workers. Here’s how much money five Chicago area governments have spent on lobbyists in the last two years. Find a more detailed look at these and other governments — who lobbies for them and more — at suntimes.com.

>> Read the partner story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

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