McHenry County Board member's lobbyist work raises questions about ethics, conflicts of interest
When former state senator and current McHenry County Board member Pamela Althoff is not serving her constituents, she may be down in Springfield lobbying the state Legislature on behalf of the village of Algonquin or the cannabis industry, state filings show.
The question of whether it is proper for former state legislators to work as private lobbyists is one that has inspired much debate and several legislative proposals on ethics reform that have been met with varying levels of success.
"It's using, essentially, knowledge that the public paid for you to get as a public employee for private benefit," said Dick Simpson, professor of political science for the University of Illinois at Chicago. "In this case, she's lobbying for a (village) to get more funds, but she is presumably getting a regular lobbying fee for doing that, and so she's personally benefiting from what she learned as a state legislator and the contacts she made."
In an interview Monday, Althoff said there is a right way and a wrong way to go about things in these situations and she is committed to going about things in the right way.
"It is not either illegal or unethical, according to state of Illinois law," she said.
Althoff will lobby the state legislature this year on behalf of the village of Algonquin, the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois and the Northern Moraine Wastewater Reclamation District, based in Island Lake, according to her 2021 lobbyist registration with the Illinois Secretary of State.
She said she is named in the 2021 contract with Algonquin only because she agreed to serve as a backup lobbyist for whenever Michael Tryon, a fellow former state legislator and current lobbyist also named in the contract, is unable to make it down to Springfield.
Althoff said she does not think her decision to serve in both roles will lead to any conflicts of interest because of the targeted nature of the contract she signed with the village, which is specifically to lobby the state legislature in regards to the village receiving its fair share of the state income tax and being granted capital funding for projects.
According to the contract signed by Althoff and Tryon, their services "include but are not limited to working with state of Illinois officials to review the capitol plan of the village and its financial impact on village constituencies; briefing the Governor's Office; representation at legislative hearings; advocacy to certain legislators, regulators and their staffs on the village capitol plan."
That work does not interfere with her work at the county level, Althoff said, and any work she does to speed up the distribution of the state income tax inherently benefits the other municipalities in McHenry County therefore aligning with her duties as a county board member.
Applying for state funding for capital projects is a competitive process as there is only so much funding to go around and local municipalities, as well as the county, all jockey to receive a piece of it.
"Our job is to ensure that those dollars in fact flow through to the village of Algonquin," Althoff said.
Last year, Althoff lobbied for the villages of Algonquin and Volo, neither of which are within the district she represents for the county board. She also worked for the Illinois Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, according to her registration file.
Since she began her lobbying career, Althoff has worked for the Illinois Municipal League and the Lake County Municipal League.
State Rep. Martin McLaughlin, who represents the southeast corner of McHenry County, said he finds it distasteful when state representatives jump straight from serving the public in Springfield to working as a lobbyist, adding he was speaking generally and did not wish to speak directly to Althoff's situation.
Althoff did just that when she resigned as the senator representing the 32nd District in September 2018 and registered as a lobbyist with the state one month later.
That November, she ran in an uncontested race for an open McHenry County Board seat representing District 4, which covers Richmond, Johnsburg, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and most of McHenry.
She got her start by working for the Enterprise Leasing Company of Chicago, LLC, more commonly known as Enterprise Rent-A-Car, records show. They are listed as a "sub client" of hers through her work with another former state legislator and current state lobbyist Thomas W. Ryder, according to state records.
Althoff received criticism for taking the lobbying job as she had backed a bill just months earlier that was favored by Enterprise Rent-A-Car and would have imposed regulations and taxes on ride-sharing companies like Uber, according to reporting by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Shortly after Althoff began her lobbying career in 2018, McLaughlin's predecessor, former state Rep. David McSweeney, introduced a bill that would have made it illegal for sitting county board members to work as lobbyists. The proposed bill never made it to a vote.
In a 2018 interview with the Northwest Herald, McSweeney said allowing such things "shakes the confidence in good government."
Althoff said it is not unusual to work as a lobbyist while holding public office. State records show there are only three other county board members statewide that are currently doing so. No other elected officials in McHenry County are registered as lobbyists.
The Chicago City Council Ethics Committee passed an ordinance in December 2019 that prohibited the city's aldermen from working as lobbyists and, specifically, from lobbying any local government units at the municipal, county or state level. The ordinance also barred other elected officials in the state from lobbying the city council, the mayor or any units of city government.
"The basic definition of corruption as a crime is using one's public office for private benefit," Simpson said.
While lobbying breeds more opportunity for corruption to occur, it depends on how the individual manages each situation, he said.
"So if she were to vote on the county board for some special benefit for the particular village and not recuse herself for receiving a salary from that village, she could well be in danger of violating federal law," he said.
Althoff said she is committed to balancing the two roles in an ethical way and has not come across any votes with the McHenry County Board that she would have had to recuse herself from because of her work as a lobbyist.