Bribery, wires, ethics take center stage in veto session — while Chicago casino waits in the wings

State Sen. Terry Link has denied he wore a wire, and Senate President John Cullerton sees no reason Link should not be involved in the gambling bill: “He is knowledgeable. He has denied that he’s this person.“

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State Senate President John Cullerton

State Senate President John Cullerton during an interview in 2017. File Photo.

Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — For all the talk of a quiet veto session, Illinois lawmakers on Tuesday were abuzz with rumblings about a wired senator and a state representative hit with a federal bribery charge — with very little action expected this week to advance a Chicago casino.

And perhaps knowing the latest federal investigation to hit Springfield is indeed a bad look, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office on Tuesday afternoon tried to offer up a distraction, announcing that the Illinois Senate had introduced language for his plan to combine roughly 650 suburban and Downstate police and fire pension funds. It is not expected to go for a full vote on Wednesday, however.

Although the Democratic governor came away with an extremely successful first legislative session earlier this year, he’s now watching four Democratic lawmakers embroiled in federal investigations — with the possibility that two are involved in measures that were crucial to his big wins: a multi-billion capital plan and his sweeping expansion of gambling.

In the latest development in what has become an aggressive federal campaign against public corruption, state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago, was hit with a federal bribery charge on Monday. The complaint alleged Arroyo allegedly gave a senator the first of what he promised would become monthly payments of $2,500, hoping to move sweepstakes gaming legislation forward in Springfield.

The 13-page criminal complaint unsealed Monday against Arroyo revealed the on-and-off cooperation with the FBI of the unnamed state senator — who wore a wire on Arroyo in hopes of landing a reduced sentence for filing false income tax returns. A source identified that lawmaker as Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, a chief architect of the gambling package that cleared Springfield earlier this year— but Link has publicly denied being the senator in question.

State Rep. Luis Arroyo leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in October.

State Rep. Luis Arroyo leaves Dirksen Federal Building on Monday, October 28. File Photo.

Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

If Link, indeed, wore a wire, his involvement could complicate a gambling trailer bill intended to finally get Chicago a casino. Asked if Link should still be involved with the measure, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, called Link “the guy that’s been the chairman of the gaming committee” and said “he knows the most about it.”

“He is knowledgeable. He has denied that he’s this person. I don’t know what else I can say about that,” Cullerton said.

“I mean, if you guys have some evidence, if you guys have some evidence that he’s involved, please let me know. If you have any more information than I do,” Cullerton said.

Cullerton said Link and the complaint were not discussed in caucus on Monday, the first day of the fall veto session: “I don’t know what people want to do. That’s why I want to see what the members want to do in response to that. That’s all I can say.”

The Sun-Times named Link as the cooperating witness, although he denied that claim to WBEZ on Monday night. There was no scurrying away for Link, who both spoke to reporters and helped pass two bills on Tuesday: a measure to reduce prescription insulin costs and another to ban public use of e-cigarettes.

“I said, what’s your source? You answer me. You’re a reporter,” Link said when asked if he wore a wire on Arroyo. “I answered the question yesterday. I’m not going to continually answer this every day of my life. I’m down here to do a job that I was elected to do, and that’s what I’m gonna do.”

State Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills,

State Sen. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, holds up the gaming expansion bill he sponsored during overtime of the Spring Session on June 2, 2019.

Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

As for Chicago’s elusive casino, no new language has been filed, but Cullerton said legislators are “pretty close to a compromise” on changing the tax rates for the casino. The Senate president said talks have shifted from Lightfoot’s proposal to have a city and state-owned casino, to the rates specifically.

“The tax rates that passed were apparently too high that Chicago may not even get a casino. If that happens, the state loses money,” Cullerton said.

The governor’s office, Senate Democrats and the mayor’s office have been collectively negotiating the effort to fix the stalled Chicago casino — but leaving out House Democrats, according to state Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, who had been the point person for the House on the matter.

“Things have changed here a little bit now,” Rita said of the legislation, adding “the House Democrats need to see” the new changes.

“Over the years, we’ve had a back and forth but last year we were working very closely with the Senate and the governor’s office to package it together and we were able to actually pass a bill that’s been hanging around for awhile. So we’ll go through it and see where we’re at,” Rita said.

Meanwhile, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan on Tuesday filed paperwork initiating the process of removing Arroyo from office. The speaker and Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin also appointed members to serve on an investigative committee. And state Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, introduced legislation that would ban lawmakers from performing paid lobbying work with local government units while in office.

House Deputy Republican Leader Tom Demmer of Dixon in 2019.

House Deputy Republican Leader Tom Demmer of Dixon announces GOP legislation to tighten ethics rules on legislators and outside lobbying. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, looks on.

John O’Connor/AP file

Cullerton said he would support a joint committee to address rules and statutory changes when it comes to ethics: “There are clearly some issues we’re dealing with, that were not addressed ten years ago [when former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached] with regard to lobbying, which is something we should look at for sure.”

The case against Arroyo revolves around his lobbying work in Chicago as manager of Spartacus 3 LLC. Arroyo signed a deal between Spartacus 3 and V.S.S. Inc. in August 2018 that promised $2,500 in monthly payments from V.S.S. to Spartacus. V.S.S. had hired Arroyo’s company to lobby the Chicago City Council for a sweepstakes ordinance, according to the feds.

State Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park — who has been accused in a federal indictment of being a ghost payroller for the Teamsters — has been in attendance for veto session this week. But state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, has not shown up for session. Sandoval’s offices and home were raided last month as FBI agents sought evidence of kickbacks in exchange for official actions — as well as information related to five Illinois Department of Transportation employees and several lobbyists. Sandoval, who was a key figure in passing the capital bill, has not been charged.

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