IDNR cracks down on conflicts of interest

IDNR cracks down on conflicts of interest

SPRINGFIELD — A month after the disclosure that an employee of the agency had taken campaign contributions from a company he oversaw, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced new policies regarding conflicts of interest.

The News-Gazette reported in late February that Tuscola's Michael L. Woods, acting director of the IDNR Office of Mines and Minerals and head of the Douglas County Democratic Party, had taken a total of $14,000 in 2012 and 2013 from Foresight Energy Services of St. Louis. Foresight is a coal company with operations at four locations in Illinois.

Within days of Foresight's $10,000 contribution to the Douglas County Democrats, the party distributed much of it to other Democrats and Democratic organizations, including $5,000 to Gov. Pat Quinn's re-election campaign and $250 to state Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign.

Two days after The News-Gazette story, both Quinn's and Frerichs' campaign committees donated the money to charities. Woods resigned from the agency on Feb. 26.

On Thursday, the IDNR announced a series of what it called "significant reforms to further improve transparency and strengthen regulations in the agency's Office of Mines and Minerals."

"The reforms being announced today are the most recent steps to further restore the integrity of this agency and allow for more public participation as we work towards becoming a national model for transparency," said Marc Miller, a Coles County native who has been the IDNR director since 2009.

The changes announced Thursday include:

— The department "strengthening its agency-wide policy on conflicts of interest to provide more specific guidance to employees with respect to prohibited acts, and areas of potential or apparent conflict."

IDNR employees are being asked to review and sign the new policy, said spokesman Chris Young.

"This updated policy strengthens language and clarifies definitions. The policy now asks employees to avoid circumstances in which they would benefit 'indirectly' from their position," Young said. "This means that an employee must be aware of conflicts arising from association with organizations and groups that might benefit from the employee's position within the agency."

One section of the new policy states: "Accepting things of value is closely related to 'private gain' and triggers other negative perceptions for public servants who are already paid by taxpayers. Thus, no employee shall accept anything of value (including services) under circumstances which might reasonably be construed to influence or compromise, or as intended to influence or compromise, the performance of his or her official duties, or which would impair or be presumed to impair his or her professional judgment."

Employees may accept "nominal courtesies extended in a spirit of hospitality," but "the presumption of intent to influence or impair will attach to gifts or offers with value in excess of $75 in any calendar year from any person with any particular matter pending before the Department or from any other prohibited source," the policy states.

— In the wake of recent failures of coal ash impoundments in North Carolina and West Virginia that resulted in contamination, IDNR's Office of Water Resources will visually inspect all coal ash impoundments in the state for structural integrity. The Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that has been leading the push for coal ash site regulations, has urged more strict oversight of three coal ash ponds at the old Vermilion Power Station.

— Additional public oversight added to State Mining and Oil and Gas boards. IDNR proposes that two more appointed members be added to both the State Mining Board and the State Oil and Gas Board. Each board would add two representatives of the general public who have no financial interest in mining or gas operations in Illinois.

— Creation of a position of general counsel to the Office of Mines and Minerals.

Sections (2):News, Local