Jim Dey: No prohibition on clerk employee running political firm

Jim Dey: No prohibition on clerk employee running political firm

When campaign season arrives, Chief Deputy Champaign County Clerk Jeremy Cirks works during the day to prepare for and conduct elections in which Democrats and Republicans compete for public support.

But at night, Cirks puts on another hat — that of a partisan political operative who does consulting work for Republicans.

Cirks' boss, Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten, said he has no problem with his subordinate's off-hours business "because he's not the election authority."

"He's not the county clerk, and I am," Hulten said.

Once an equal partner with Cirks in Results Plus, Hulten sold his share after becoming county clerk in 2011 because he said "consulting would not be appropriate for a county clerk."

"I don't do consulting any more," he said.

Indeed, Hulten said it's important for him and his employees to be nonpartisan and that he is unaware of the details of Cirks' off-hours activities as a political consultant.

"I don't know who he consults for or even if he does any consulting," Hulten said.

Although Cirks said he's not involved in any 2014 campaigns, Results Plus has been a big player in Republican Party politics and past elections.

Both Hulten and Cirks freely discussed their current and past association with Results Plus. Cirks said "we have been open about it since day one" and that "if (Results Plus) ever becomes an issue, I'll close the business."

Cirks indicated that he is aware some local partisans have suggested there is an appearance problem with a county clerk employee operating an outside political consulting firm. But there is no specific prohibition of the practice.

Deb Feinen, the lawyer and registered agent for Results Plus, said Cirks' outside employment is well within the law.

"I assume he's not the only (person) who's been employed outside the office. I can't imagine that you could have a (lawful) policy that would prohibit it," she said.

Urbana City Council member Charlie Smyth, who ran against Hulten for clerk in 2012, indicated that he shares Feinen's position.

He said he is aware of Results Plus and sees no problem as long as there is full disclosure.

"As long as everything sees the light of day and there is no insider advantage, what (Cirks) does in his off hours is his business," Smyth said.

An information technology specialist, Smyth said he had "off-hours clients while I worked at the university."

State records identify Results Plus clients and what they paid.

Among the local candidates are Champaign County Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman, former Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart, state Sens. Jason Barickman and Chapin Rose, the Champaign County Republican Party and one-time circuit clerk candidate Rick Winkel.

Other clients include Bloomington state Sen. Bill Brady and state Rep. Dwight Kay of Edwardsville.

The Illinois State Board of Elections reports that Results Plus has been paid $214,978 since 2008 for its services, which include website design, acquisition of political signs, polling, media production, campaign supplies, political mailings and advice. The vast majority of that sum has come in more recent years.

Cirks, however, said total revenues do not reflect the low profit margins and that the business is basically a hobby.

"If it was that profitable, I wouldn't be working in the clerk's office," he said.

Hulten was appointed county clerk when the incumbent, Mark Shelden, left to work for former Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson. Hulten was elected to the post in 2012 to fill out the last two years of Shelden's term.

Cirks worked as Johnson's congressional district director when Shelden joined the office. He later worked for U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren before joining Hulten in the clerk's office.

Prior to become county clerk, Hulten was in the real estate business, oversaw the local political web log IlliniPundit and volunteered in the campaigns of GOP friends who ran for office. Hulten said he used the political skills he developed in the mid-1990s when he worked alongside Cirks for the Illinois House Republicans.

While working in Springfield, Hulten assisted Republican House members with their legislative duties most of the time. During campaign season, Hulten said, he and other staffers, like Cirks, would take leaves of absence to run campaigns.

Hulten said "not everybody has those particular (campaign) skills" and they came in handy when assisting local candidates. He said that eventually he "had a handful of candidates" who wanted to pay for his services.

That's when Hulten and Cirks formed Results Plus, which was incorporated in March 2007. Hulten, then a member of the Champaign City Council, listed his interest in Results Plus on his Statement of Economic Interest that was filed with the county clerk's office in November 2010. In Hulten's most recent Statement of Economic Interest, Results Plus is not included.

"I would always joke that I would consult for campaigns for fun money, like to buy basketball tickets," he said. "I always had a job so it was easy to walk away from."

Still, Results Plus and the personal ties that bind it together can create complications.

Last year's Republican primary for circuit clerk looked like a confrontation between former Republican state Sen. Rick Winkel and Republican county board member Stephanie Holderfield.

After Holderfield filed to run, Deb Feinen, purportedly on behalf of her father but in reality on behalf of the Winkel campaign, challenged Holderfield's voter petitions in an effort to knock her off the ballot.

Hulten was a member of the three-person panel hearing Feinen's challenge, and Holderfield asked that Hulten recuse himself, mostly because of Hulten's long friendship with Winkel. But Holderfield said that "a little bit of it" was because of Hulten's ties to Feinen.

Hulten declined to step aside and ultimately voted to reject the challenge to Holderfield's petitions.

"It was a pretty tough circumstance," said Holderfield, who was forced to hire a lawyer to represent her.

Although Holderfield survived the challenge, her campaign soon ran off the rails. Although Winkel withdrew from the race before the primary election, his name remained on the ballot and he won the GOP nomination. Later, party officials selected Blakeman rather than Holderfield to fill the vacant GOP ballot slot, and Blakeman ended up hiring Results Plus as a campaign consultant.

Blakeman said she hired Results Plus on the advice of her campaign manager, Brian Kelly, who is now her deputy circuit clerk.

"(Kelly) had worked with them in the past. I didn't know much about campaigning," she said.

Blakeman said Results Plus handled a host of assignments and "I had no complaint" about the quality of its work. She said Kelly was her intermediary to Results Plus and that he worked with Results Plus owner Jeremy Cirks, "not with Gordy."

Cirks said that when he took over Results Plus he hoped to expand its reach from political consulting to include small business marketing but that has yet to happen.

"I probably turn down more business than I accept because I just haven't got the time," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of the News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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Batman wrote on June 22, 2013 at 9:06 am

What's new???  Incestuous small town politics as usual.  Everyone is connected to everyone, one way or another.  Cirks says it is a "hobby" and in the same breath says he is turning down more business than he accepts.  Both statements cannot be true, under the circumstances.  Why would Cirks want to pay for his own retirement and health insurance when idiots like us County Taxpayers are doing that for him???

wayward wrote on June 23, 2013 at 6:06 am

If it's his own time with his own equipment and everything's transparent, it doesn't seem like a problem.  It's not surprising that all the candidates are Republicans -- people who get paid to work on campaigns can serve one side or the other but not both.

basset wrote on June 23, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Jim: you missed the main ethical point.  I assume that Cirks was appointed to his current position by Hulten,  It might be legal to do this and it is legal for Cirks to do consulting after hours, but was it an ethical act to appoint your business partner to the post?   That's the real ethical concern here.