State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, is one of the most powerful people in Springfield, talked about as a possible future president of the Illinois Senate.
He’s also a partner in a Chicago law firm that’s been paid more than $9 million in the past five years for doing legal work for state agencies, government workers’ pension funds and local governments whose citizens he represents in the Senate, a Chicago Sun-Times examination has found.
That covers work done for more than 20 government bodies, including the city of Chicago, Cook County, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the agency that owns McCormick Place and Navy Pier.
The firm — Burke Burns & Pinelli — has done work 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, one of the suburbs he represents in the Illinois Senate, according to records and interviews.
His firm also worked on applications for millions of dollars in five state grants that went to Cinespace Chicago Film Studios — where TV shows including “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Fire” are shot. The state money included a $10 million grant that Gov. Bruce Rauner ordered the West Side studio to repay in 2015 after the Sun-Times reported that the money was supposed to buy property for an expansion, but the land owners said they weren’t going to sell.
Harmon says he derives no “financial benefit from state or state-affiliated work done by the firm.”
The west suburban legislator also says he doesn’t handle the legal work that his firm gets from the government agencies, including the pension funds, he helps oversee nor from any local government he represents as a legislator. Other lawyers at the firm handle that work, he says.
Mary Patricia Burns, the majority owner of the law firm, didn’t respond to a call and emails seeking comment.
According to Harmon, the law firm “periodically has represented the state or state agencies since its founding in 1992.”
Harmon — who once worked as deputy legal counsel to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago — was elected to the state Senate in 2002. At the time, he was a lawyer with the firm Mayer Brown LLP, where he “practiced corporate banking and municipal law,” according to the online biography on his law firm’s website. In 2005, he joined his current firm, where he is one of seven partners but says he “has no ownership interest.”
As president pro tempore of the Illinois Senate, Harmon is among the top leaders of the legislative chamber, whose members are part-time and typically also hold other jobs. Harmon’s yearly pay as a state senator is $78,163.
He says his law firm salary is less than that but won’t say how much he makes.
Asked whether he gets any additional compensation beside salary, Harmon would say only that his total pay from Burke Burns & Pinelli is less than the governor’s $177,412-a-year salary — the cap on his pay under Illinois ethics law because his firm gets state business.
The legislative inspector general has the authority to determine whether state senators and representatives are complying with those rules. That’s a post that’s been vacant for more than two years.
Among the biggest government clients of Harmon’s firm over the past five years has been IDOT, which maintains the state’s expressways and other state roads. The state transportation agency paid Burke Burns & Pinelli about $2.2 million from 2012 through 2016, billing records show.
Richard Kabaker, deputy chief counsel for the state agency, says it has had Harmon’s firm handle condemnation cases for at least a decade. Records show the firm has been involved in numerous state road projects in the Chicago area.
Kabaker says the law firms that IDOT employs get reappointed “if they’re doing a good job,” and Harmon’s firm does “a good job for us.”
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office represents IDOT and other state agencies and hires private law firms to represent them as needed, though Kabaker says, with IDOT, those hires are a joint decision.
Ann Spillane, a top aide to Lisa Madigan, says her boss doesn’t get involved in choosing which law firms get state work and that Harmon’s firm has been handling condemnations for state government for years before Madigan took office in 2003. Spillane says the office’s staff attorneys recommended keeping the firm because it was “doing a good job.”
Illinois State Board of Elections records show the firm, its partners and their families and Harmon’s campaign fund have contributed a total of more than $380,000 since the mid-1990s to political funds run by or affiliated with the two Madigans.
Spillane says the attorney general’s campaign fund doesn’t “solicit from people who contract with our office, and we try not to take” contributions from them.
Of the approximately $70,000 Lisa Madigan’s campaign fund has accepted from Harmon, his firm and fellow lawyers, all but $10,000 came before she took office as attorney general, records show.
The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, which oversees the tollway system, has paid Burke Burns & Pinelli more than $665,000 since 2012 for legal work in two areas, state records show: borrowing done through the issuance of bonds and property condemnations.
The law firm’s pension work includes handling general legal services for two of the biggest pension funds for city of Chicago retirees: the Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago, which handles pensions for city firefighters, and the Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund, which covers city retirees.
Burke Burns & Pinelli has been paid a total of about $2.1 million over the past five years by those two retirement funds.
Among the law firm’s duties for both pension funds is keeping their officials apprised of state “legislative matters,” records show.
Addressing the state’s massively underfunded government pension funds is up to the Legislature and the governor. Harmon voted last year to override a Rauner veto and set new funding levels for the firefighters’ retirement fund and for the pension plan for retired Chicago cops. Among the potential revenue sources: money from a Chicago casino, if one gets approved by the Legislature.
Harmon says he avoids voting on legislation directly affecting his firm’s clients.
Asked why Harmon voted on the pension bill, a spokeswoman says: “Senate records indicate no pension funds supported or opposed” the bill. “In the event that clients of the firm do initiate, support or oppose legislation, Senator Harmon discloses the conflict to the Senate and abstains from voting when appropriate or votes in the public’s best interest.”
Much of his firm’s government work involves agencies borrowing money through the issuance of bonds. The firm was paid more than $300,000 to handle bond work for Rosemont. A village spokesman says Rosemont’s financial consultant picked Burke Burns & Pinelli for the job.
The firm also has done bond work involving the Illinois Housing Development Authority, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority and the city of Chicago, among other government bodies, records show.
Harmon says he limits his work as an attorney to private clients. He declined to identify any of them.
But he says he never worked for his client’s firm Cinespace, the clout-heavy studio that’s gotten millions of dollars in state grants.
Two years ago, state Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, introduced legislation demanding an independent audit of five state grants totaling $27.3 million that former Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration gave to Cinespace.
Bivins sought the review by the Illinois auditor general’s office after the Sun-Times reported that owners of land that Cinespace said it planned to buy with the last of those grants — for $10 million, awarded after Quinn lost his reelection bid to Rauner — hadn’t listed their properties for sale and weren’t going to sell them.
“It was something that was suspicious,” Bivins says. “It was something that should have been audited. It just seemed like nobody wanted to look at it.”
The Legislature never voted on Bivins’ push for an audit of the grants, including the $10 million grant, which Cinespace repaid the state in response to a demand from Rauner prompted by the Sun-Times’ reports. Bivins’ legislation quietly died earlier this year after being sent to a Senate committee on which Harmon is vice-chairman.
“I have no recollection of that particular resolution,” Harmon says.
The other four state grants his firm helped land for Cinespace were used to buy and convert the former Ryerson Steel plant on the West Side into the TV and movie studio, which opened in 2011.
Cinespace is family-owned, run by former real estate developer Alex Pissios. Touted as the largest studio east of Los Angeles, Cinespace deposited its state grants into Belmont Bank & Trust, whose clout-heavy board of directors includes attorney James Banks, a longtime member of the tollway board, and former state Sen. James DeLeo, D-Chicago, a Quinn ally.
Kyle Cullerton, a son of state Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, is on the advisory board of a not-for-profit “film and media incubator” on the studio’s property. Cinespace says it has funded the incubator, called Stage 18, though spokesmen for Cinespace and the Senate president say the son isn’t paid.
Eric Herman, a spokesman for Cinespace, says Burke Burns & Pinelli was hired in 2010 “because they have a great reputation.”