Jim Dey | It's possible to run afoul of ethics rules even in Illinois

Jim Dey | It's possible to run afoul of ethics rules even in Illinois

The idea of government ethics in Illinois may strike many people as oxymoronic. But even here in the Land That's Now an Embarrassment to Lincoln, our elected officials pay tribute to the idea of not dealing from the bottom of the deck.

That's why legislators passed the State Officials and Public Employees Ethics Act, which created a nine-member ethics commission and a paper-pushing staff who oversee a variety of duties.

Lately, the commission has been consumed with implementing education and training programs discouraging sexual harassment. But it also deals with a variety of allegedly inappropriate behavior by employees that includes misusing state resources or engaging in personal misconduct. It's pretty small potatoes.

Every now and then, however, the commission catches a big case whose handling reveals the vast authority this virtually invisible body wields.

Last week was one of those times, and the executive inspector general's office issued a statement touting its unprecedented action: "This is the largest fine ever assessed by the (Executive Ethics Commission) for a violation of Ethics Act."

How large was the fine levied for an allegedly misbehaving bureaucrat? $5,000? $10,000? Not even close.

The commission levied a fine of $154,056.10 on Mark Doyle, a former employee of the Illinois Department of Human Services, for violating the state's "revolving-door prohibition."

Mark Bloom, a Chicago lawyer representing Doyle, is appealing the administrative fine to the circuit court. He insists the commission's decision is at variance with the facts.

"The conduct that is at issue is outside the scope of the revolving-door prohibition," Bloom said.

Even if his client is guilty, he said, the fine is "excessive and ignores several mitigating factors."

Those claims will be left for a trial judge and perhaps the appellate courts to resolve.

But for those readers wondering just what a fellow has to do to be fined $154,056.10, it's important to look at the case against Doyle.

Here's the background.

State law has a "revolving-door prohibition" that bars a state employee involved in the awarding of a contract to a private firm from going to work for that same firm for one year after leaving the state's employment.

Doyle, who worked for human resources from 2011 to 2015, was responsible for closing state-operated developmental-disability and psychiatric-care centers and replacing them with community-based facilities and small group homes.

In 2014, Doyle worked on a $1.1 million contract with Community Resource Associates "to assist with these closures and transitions."

That same year, Community Resource Associates Consulting, which was controlled by the owner of Community Resources Associates, reached a similar agreement with the state of Georgia.

That's when the parent company's owner, Derrick Dufresne, a longtime friend of Doyle, suggested he leave Illinois and work on the Georgia contract.

Doyle sought permission from the inspector general's office to take the job. But that was denied in March 2015 because "in the year prior to his termination, Doyle participated personally and substantially as a (state employee) in the decision to award contract to CRA, which is essentially the same entity as CRA-C."

About a month later, Doyle sought commission approval to work for a new employer — BennBrook — and the commission agreed.

But the commission later found that Doyle "did not disclose to the (inspector general) that BennBrook was contracting with CRA-C to do work that the (inspector general) had previously found to be restricted."

Ultimately, what Doyle perceived to be a clever contractual arrangement with BennBrook turned out to be too clever by half. The ethics commission concluded Doyle "knowingly accepted compensation or fees for services from CRA-C by BennBrook, which operated as nothing more than a 'pass-through' organization for CRA-C."

Doyle's lawyer contends that the commission's decision was wrong because the "true source" of his client's compensation was BennBrook.

But that's a tough argument to make in light of an email Doyle sent along with his invoices to BennBrook on June 7, 2015.

"Remember, you must invoice CRA Consulting prior to the 27th of each month. CRA must have all their invoices in to the state of Georgia by the 27th of each month in order to get paid. I believe the state of Georgia only pays them once a month," Doyle wrote to BennBrook.

Doyle billed his employer $154,056.10 for the time he spent working on the Georgia contract, money the commission described as "unlawfully obtained" and said must be forfeited in the form of a fine of the same amount.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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