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Illinois Senate President Don Harmon ‘stepping away’ from law firm job amid conflict of interest scrutiny

The newly minted Illinois Senate president announced Wednesday that he will be “stepping away” from a law firm that’s been paid millions of dollars doing legal work for state agencies.

State Senate President Don Harmon in 2017.
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, says he will be “stepping away” from his role as a partner in a law firm that’s been paid millions of dollars doing legal work for state agencies.

Speaking on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” the legislator said he spoke with the head of the firm — Burke Burns & Pinelli — on Tuesday, and “we began the discussion of me stepping away from the practice” and “we’re working out all those details.”

“I love practicing law and I can’t imagine a better place to do it than the law firm I’ve been with these last 15 years,” Harmon said during the appearance. “My partners are exceptional lawyers and, even more important to me, loyal friends.”

This comes after Harmon was elevated to the role of Illinois Senate president Sunday.

The Sun-Times reported in 2017 the firm Harmon worked for had been paid more than $9 million in the last five years for doing legal work for various state agencies, government workers’ pension funds and local governments whose citizens he represents in the Senate.

The firm has worked for agencies whose budgets Harmon votes on, including the Illinois Department of Transportation, and government pension funds regulated by Harmon and his fellow legislators, as well as the village of Rosemont, a suburb he represents in the Illinois Senate, the Sun-Times reported.

Harmon’s law firm has long worked for Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, whose president Alexander S. Pissios became an FBI mole leading to extortion charges against Teamsters boss John Coli. Coli has since pleaded guilty and has been cooperating with federal investigators leading to criminal charges against state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, who is awaiting trial.

But Harmon insisted it was more a matter of devoting time to his new leadership post rather than eliminating a conflict of interest.

“I was very careful to manage the conflicts, and my firm was incredibly committed to making sure I had the chance to maintain my integrity,” Harmon told WTTW. “The simple fact of the matter is I just don’t have the time to be a good Senate president and live up to my responsibilities to my partners and my clients.”

Mary Pat Burns, the majority owner of the firm, said in an emailed statement that she and Harmon agreed he could “best serve Illinois by devoting all of his time to his new role in the Senate.”

“It’s been wonderful to practice law with him at Burke Burns & Pinelli for the last 15 years,” she said. “And I take pride in knowing that a WBE firm played such a central role in the life of the new President of the Illinois Senate.”

Contributing: Tim Novak, Robert Herguth