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Illinois Aide Claims Earmarks Credit

A top aide to Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) has used his employment with the House to help win local races, repeatedly claiming in campaign literature and public meetings that he is responsible for securing millions in federal earmarks for the village of Oak Lawn, while also racking up thousands in campaign contributions from companies with business before Lipinski’s Congressional committees.

Lipinski’s state chief of staff, Jerry Hurckes, who also worked for the Congressman’s father, former Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.), has served as an elected member of the Oak Lawn Board of Trustees since 1999.

His positions as a Lipinski staffer sparked a brouhaha in Oak Lawn following a March 11 board meeting during which he castigated the village manager and other board members for meeting with a Washington, D.C.-based Congressional lobbyist, accusing them of attempting “to do an end run around [him] and not deal with Jerry Hurckes.”

Ethics attorneys and government watchdog organizations said Hurckes’ case presents unique legal and ethical questions.

“I’ve been in this town for 35 years, and I’ve never seen anything quite like that,” said Jan Baran, a Congressional ethics expert with the law firm Wiley Rein.

House ethics rules bar staff who also hold elected office from using federal resources to benefit their constituents.

For years Hurckes has used his position as a top aide to both Lipinskis as a selling point in his Oak Lawn races. In a 2007 mailer sent to voters, Hurckes took credit for securing federal funding for the village, including being “responsible for helping secure over $4 million for the Village of Oak Lawn … responsible for helping obtain the funding for the Oak Lawn Children Museum … [and] responsible for funding for emergency light systems” for traffic signals in the village.

Neither Hurckes nor Lipinski’s staff returned calls to comment on this story.

On his official trustee bio on the village Web site, Hurckes lists as his “Primary goal as an elected official” to make “sure the residents of the 1st District voices are heard. Work hard to make sure those same residents are offered and receive the services of our Village they need. Work closely with other local, state and federal officials to make sure our community remains a safe and prosperous neighborhood.”

During the March 11 meeting of the board, Hurckes bristled when his fellow trustees argued the village needed to hire a lobbyist to better represent it in Washington, taking umbrage at the “assumption we’re not getting federal assistance,” according to a video of the meeting. The argument was first reported by the Southtown Star.

In the video, Hurckes complains that Village Manager Larry Deetjen and trustees Robert Streit and Carol Quinlan took “every opportunity to bypass the authority figure in the Chicago office” by meeting with Alcalde & Fay, a federal lobbying shop, as well as Lipinski’s D.C.-based chief of staff, Jason Tai.

Repeatedly using the phrase “It was I who” to preface his accomplishments, Hurckes ticked off earmarks he claimed to have secured for the village, including funding for Advocate Christ Medical Center, $100,000 for the Oak Lawn Children’s Museum, nearly $4 million in transportation infrastructure funds and a $600,000 grant to the village’s fire department. Hurckes also claimed to have intervened with the Army Corps of Engineers as part of the village’s efforts to deal with longstanding flooding problems. “It was I that brought … the Army Corps of Engineers,” Hurckes said.

Hurckes also complained that it was a waste of village funds to hire lobbyists in Washington given his role as Lipinski’s local chief of staff. “I don’t think we need to have an outside firm to do the job we should be doing inside. As the Congressman’s chief of staff in the Chicagoland office … we are the ones who have helped in the past get this funding here, and if you disagree, the proof is in the pudding right there. So I think us going out and hiring a lobbyist — not a consultant, not a helper, it’s a lobbyist — is a waste of our funds.”

A number of board members, however, complained that Hurckes, who has registered a campaign committee to run for mayor this year, has used his connections with Lipinski to control the flow of federal funds to further his political career. “The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of these monies didn’t start hitting us until the last two or three years, which just happened to be an election year,” Trustee Alex Olejniczak charged during the meeting. Trustee Tom Phelan agreed, arguing during the meeting that “we have been disserved by you as a Congressional staffer.”

In an interview, Phelan said that while Hurckes may have been able to secure some money for the village, his politicization of his connections with Lipinski have led many in the village to believe he uses his employment with Lipinski and the federal funds he claims to control to benefit him politically. Hurckes “uses that to his advantage and to our disadvantage,” Phelan said.

Unlike his fellow trustees — several of whom do not operate formal campaign committees, according to state data — Hurckes has taken a professional approach to his political career, and the Lipinskis have been one of his patrons over his nearly decade-long career in office.

According to state campaign finance records, both Lipinskis, their campaign committees and Bill Lipinski’s nonprofit “Bill Lipinski’s All-American Eagles” have been among his top campaign contributors.

Their campaign committees and All-American Eagles have contributed $14,040 to Friends of Jerry Hurckes. They also have paid Hurckes $17,076 for working on their campaigns and as a political consultant, either in direct payments to him or through his consulting firm Hurk Communications.

Hurckes’ staff salary was $107,224 in 2006, just under the level at which rules would come into play restricting outside income. As a result, he could continue his outside consulting.

Hurckes’ campaign finance reports also show that he has taken in thousands in campaign contributions from national entities with business before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which both Lipinskis have been members, and in many cases have also donated to one or both of the Congressmen. Donors to Hurckes include UPS, CSX, BNSF and DMJM Harris Inc., a transportation consulting firm.

It is not unusual for large national companies to be involved in local elections, though generally villages as small as Oak Lawn rarely see such political contributions, particularly if companies do not have business interests there.

UPS spokesman Malcolm Berkley declined to specify why the company’s political action committee targeted Hurckes, saying the company has long sought “to support candidates who share our views on business.”

Baran said there are no rules against Hurckes raising campaign cash from either his employers or companies that have business before Lipinski’s committee, noting “that is the same situation that Rep. Lipinski finds himself in” when raising funds from these and other entities.

Baran said Hurckes’ claims that he has acted as an advocate for Oak Lawn in his capacity as Lipinski’s chief of staff “does raise questions under the ethics booklet,” including the prohibition against the mixing of the two roles to ensure the distinctions are clear in the public’s mind.

Although House ethics rules and federal law do not prohibit aides from holding elected office, the chamber’s ethics manual warns that “staff should take care, however, to avoid any undertaking that is inconsistent with congressional responsibilities. … In dealing with the public, staff who serve as local officials should always make clear in which capacity they are acting. They should discourage any suggestion that their local constituents will receive special treatment from the congressional office, beyond that received by other residents of the congressional district.”

Additionally, the rules prohibit staff who hold elected office from neglecting their Congressional duties, or from using government resources such as office space, their time on the job or even phones, in their capacity as an elected official.

“Employees who run for or hold local office may not do so to the neglect of congressional duties, nor on ‘official time’ for they receive Government salary. No local elective service may be performed in the congressional office or in a manner that utilizes any official resources, including the telephones,” the rule book says.

Baran said this provision also could prove problematic for Hurckes since it would be difficult for him to have secured federal funding without using his office resources. “I don’t know how you’d be able to obtain earmarks without using House office space,” Baran said.

Baran said there is little in the way of precedent to judge Hurckes’ actions. “I just have never heard of a situation where a Congressional employee is also an elected official … and is asserting he or she is providing special favors” for their constituents, Baran said.

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