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THE WATCHDOGS: Top Madigan aide has lucrative side deals with clients that rely on state funding

For 30 years, Steve Brown has been the voice of Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan — a press secretary whose pronouncements often provide the only insight into the thinking of one of the state’s most powerful politicians.

But Madigan’s top aide has never been a state employee, unlike the people handling similar duties elsewhere in Illinois government.

Instead, Brown works for Madigan under a lucrative contract that lets Brown also do consulting work for other clients that rely on Madigan and the Illinois General Assembly for funding, records examined by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

Brown’s clients include a state agency and a state university. They also include a private nurse-assistant training program called New Start Inc. whose state funding more than doubled over two years, records show.

Brown — who is on track to make at least $196,000 this year working for the speaker and nine other clients — says he had nothing to do with the big boost in state funding for New Start.

Brown, 66, says he never lobbies the speaker or other anyone else in Springfield to help any of his clients obtain state money. In fact, he says, he rejects potential clients if he thinks they want to hire him for his clout with Madigan, a Chicago Democrat.

“If I feel that somebody has approached me because they thought it would give them some advantage with the General Assembly . . . I have turned [those] people down,” he says.

Brown isn’t required to disclose his clients because he isn’t a state employee. If he were on the state payroll, he’d have to file a yearly “statement of economic interest” that would identify clients.

The Sun-Times turned up some of his clients using public records. Brown disclosed others after an interview.

Madigan is his biggest client, with Brown’s “Illinois House of Representatives Agreement for Services” calling for him to be on call for Madigan 24 hours a day, responding to reporters’ questions, writing news releases and handling “other duties as assigned by the chief of staff or speaker of the House.”

But Madigan has agreed to take a back seat to Brown’s other clients if there’s ever a “conflict of interest” with his work for the speaker. In that case, Brown’s contract says he’ll stop working on such matters “on behalf of the House of Representatives unless and until the conflict is eliminated.”

Brown says he discloses potential clients to Madigan. “I tend to make him aware somebody has approached me about providing some service, as a courtesy.”

Madigan couldn’t be reached for comment.

Brown gets a base salary of $112,500 this year under his state contract. Madigan also has agreed to reimburse him $8,128 this year for health insurance. Other contractual employees working for the state typically don’t get such fringe benefits.

Brown also gets $45 a day for meals and lodging whenever he’s away from his home in downstate Washington, which is about 75 miles north of Springfield. And he’s reimbursed for travel expenses.

Brown opened his consulting business after leaving his post as a top aide to former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne in the early 1980s. Brown started working for Madigan in 1984.

Not all of Brown’s clients get state funding, but even those that don’t often have an interest in decisions made in the Capitol.

Brown’s current clients include:

• The Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, a state agency that pays Brown $19,200 a year for “legislative consulting services” including “budgetary strategy” and media training for state’s attorneys across Illinois.

• Chicago State University, which pays him $18,000 a year “to develop strategies for problem solving, message development, improved internal and external public communications” and to “expand public awareness on a range of topics.”

• The Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, which pays $18,000 a year for Brown to do 15 hours of work a month assisting with media and communications services. The not-for-profit intergovernmental agency manages garbage collection for 23 suburbs.

• The Northwest Municipal Conference, a not-for-profit agency that pays Brown $12,600 a year for services including providing legislative updates and attending events including a “legislative brunch” and “legislative days in Springfield.” The group lobbies legislators on transportation and other issues on behalf of 44 member suburbs.

• The Alternative Schools Network, which pays Brown $8,000 a year to communicate with reporters about its efforts to help high school dropouts and curb youth unemployment, according to executive director Jack Wuest. The not-for-profit has gotten $1.6 million in state grants over the past two years.

• New Start Inc., the Springfield not-for-profit, which has a $10,000-a-year consulting contract with Brown. New Start was started by the late James Torricelli, a longtime Brown friend, and now is run by Torricelli’s son Steve Torricelli.

In the 2011 budget year, the group got $366,043 in state funding approved by the Legislature to train nursing assistants. Its state funding was increased to $550,698 in 2012 and to $750,000 a year during each of the next two years.

New Start’s funding for last year was put on hold when Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner suspended many state grants after taking office in January. Madigan then introduced a massive appropriations bill for the 2016 budget year that included $750,000 for New Start, but Rauner vetoed the entire legislation.

Without state funding, New Start has temporarily shut down, leaving Brown’s consulting contract in limbo.

Torricelli, New Start’s executive director, says he’s never asked Brown to lobby Madigan or any other lawmakers to fund New Start.

“We speak for ourselves,” Torricelli says. “The biggest role he provides for me is to connect me with people who could help the agency. We started a campus in Chicago. We needed to find a nursing home that would be a partner with us. He had a contact.”

Brown also works for three other not-for-profit clients that either declined to say how much they pay him or couldn’t be reached for comment: the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association of Illinois, the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents and Special Education Services.

Last year, Brown also consulted for a business called Illinois Agriculture Investments LLC, which tried — but failed — to get a state medical marijuana grower’s license in downstate Marshall County.

“That was about seven hours of work I did for a company that applied — and they lost,” Brown says.