County ethics chief OKs commissioner to vote on pop tax repeal

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin listens during a special meeting of the County Board last week. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Cook County’s top ethics official on Tuesday cleared Commissioner Richard Boykin, D-Oak Park, to vote on a measure to repeal the county’s tax on sweetened beverages after Boykin promised he would no longer profit personally from his law firm’s work for Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

Boykin’s move followed a Chicago Sun-Times article on Oct. 1 that revealed that Boykin’s firm, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, has worked for beverage companies that strongly opposed the penny-an-ounce tax.

As a partner at the firm, the commissioner shared in profits from work that other Barnes & Thornburg lawyers did for Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Boykin initially said the situation did not create a conflict of interest that would prevent him from voting on the tax repeal measure because he did not personally work for those clients of his firm.

But Boykin sent a letter to the firm’s managing partner the day after the Sun-Times article was published, saying, “I am declining any compensation I may be entitled to as a capital partner of Barnes & Thornburg that is a direct result of legal work done on behalf of Pepsi or Coca-Cola.”

And on the same day, records show, Boykin contacted the county’s Board of Ethics and talked with the agency’s executive director, Ranjit Hakim. In a letter sent to Boykin on Tuesday, Hakim said he had read the Sun-Times article and noted that county ethics rules require commissioners to disclose when they have an “economic interest” in a matter before them and to refrain from voting.

“The troubling implication of this column was that your vote on this item would be made to benefit the firm’s clients — who, in turn, are in a position to benefit you economically — and in violation of your duty of undivided loyalty to Cook County government and the residents it serves,” Hakim wrote.

In an interview, Hakim said Boykin “did have an economic interest that was distinct from the interests of the public at large.”

But Hakim told Boykin he got around the problem when he “declined future compensation” for the firm’s work for Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

On Tuesday, Boykin’s office told Hakim that Barnes & Thornburg was paid nearly $96,000 for legal work it did for Pepsi or Coca-Cola in 2016. A Boykin aide said the commissioner returned his share of the revenues from that work, which was $125.77.

As a result of those actions, Hakim wrote, “I am comfortable that the conflict of interest identified in the Oct. 1, 2017 Sun Times column has been sufficiently cured that the ethics ordinance will not be violated if you participate in the vote to repeal the sweetened beverage tax.”

At a County Board committee meeting Tuesday, Boykin voted to repeal the tax. He also had opposed the tax when other commissioners and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle forced it through the board last year, and he’s been a vocal critic of the tax and Preckwinkle ever since.

Boykin was first elected to the County Board in 2014 — yet he has continued to work as a lobbyist out of the Chicago and Washington offices of Barnes & Thornburg.

A PepsiCo spokesman says the company hired Barnes & Thornburg in 2015 to lobby against a City Hall tax on soda products that ultimately was not approved.

On Tuesday, Boykin aide Patrick Oldendorf said PepsiCo paid about $20,000 for its help at City Hall, but Boykin himself did not lobby Chicago officials on that legislation.

Other lawyers from Boykin’s firm have represented Coca-Cola and Pepsi in many cases, according to court records, defending Pepsi against allegation of racial discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Since the County Board approved the tax last November, Pepsi has given contributions to Boykin and the other seven commissioners who voted against the tax, state campaign-finance records show.

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