Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), pictured in this January 2011 file photo, confirmed Tuesday he is recusing himself from sponsorship of gambling-expansion legislation because of a "perceived conflict." ( AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
SPRINGFIELD-State Rep. Lou Lang cited a "perceived conflict of interest" Tuesday behind his abrupt and surprising decision to end his sponsorship and potential future involvement in gambling-expansion legislation.
The Skokie Democrat informed House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) of the decision on Monday, a move that could threaten any efforts to get Senate-passed gambling-expansion legislation out of the House this spring.
Lang's departure came as the Rockford Register Star reported in its Tuesday editions that the northern Illinois city, which the lawmaker specified in his legislation as a site for a new casino, last summer hired the law firm that employs Lang to handle workers compensation matters and to assist in flooding-related litigation against Rockford.
"It was recently brought to my attention that there may be a perceived conflict of interest between the law firm of which I am of counsel and my sponsorship of the gaming bill because a client of the firm has an interest that could be impacted by the passage of the proposed legislation," Lang wrote.
"To be clear, the law firm's work for the client has no relation whatsoever to any gaming legislation. Additionally, I do no legal work for this client, and I receive no compensation from their relationship with the firm," he said.
"My actions as an attorney and/or a member of the General Assembly have been, at every moment, completely appropriate and totally respectful of all applicable laws and ethical rules," he continued. "There have been no violations of any kind."
Earlier this month, the Senate passed gambling-expansion legislation that would authorize five new locations, including a site in Chicago, Rockford, the south suburbs, Lake County and downstate Danville.
Rockford Legal Director Patrick Hayes told the Rockford newspaper that there was not any linkage between its hiring of Evergreen Park-based Odelson and Sterk and the city's inclusion in the gambling bill Lang has twice passed through the House only to see Gov. Pat Quinn veto it.
Under Lang's sponsorship, the House passed a gambling expansion plan that named Rockford as a site for a new casino in May 2012. A similar measure, also sponsored by Lang, passed the House in May 2011.
Hayes indicated that Lang, who is of counsel to the law firm, did not personally handle any of Rockford's city worker's compensation work, leaving that to two other lawyers with the firm.
The newspaper reported that eight law firms had sought the city's legal work last year, but that Odelson and Sterk was not the lowest bidder. Hayes, in a later interview with the Sun-Times, said the firm was paid approximately $60,000 by the city last year.
Lang did not list the possible conflict involving his employer's work for Rockford on his newly filed statement of economic interest, an ethics disclosure form designed to outline public officials' financial holdings and potential conflicts.
"My economic interest statement asked what professional services I rendered, and I said 'practice of law.' That's all it has to say," Lang said when asked why he didn't disclose the Rockford connection on the form that he filed with Secretary of State Jesse White's office on April 11.
"Understand, a client of the firm and a client of mine aren't necessarily the same thing. I'm of counsel to a law firm," Lang said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Lang also defended the timing to withdraw as sponsor of the gambling bill, even though the connection Odelson and Sterk had with Rockford dated back to last summer.
"This is the time I felt was appropriate. I think you know that in all the legislation I've ever had in gaming going back 20 years, I've had Rockford in the bill. There's nothing new here," Lang said.
Lang didn't waver when pressed why he didn't object to the decision by the law firm that employs him to solicit business from a town covered by his gambling-expansion legislation.
"I have violated no ethical rules, and so I'll send you this piece of paper," he said, referring to the letter to Madigan, announcing his recusal from the legislation. "I don't want to discuss it further. That's my public comment."
Lang, who was working the gambling package aggressively as recently as a week ago, turned over sponsorship to state Rep. Robert Rita (D-Blue Island).
In brief comments to the Sun-Times Tuesday, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) said Lang's departure would not impact the prospects for gambling legislation in the House.
"I think there's no change," Madigan said while walking from the House floor to his Statehouse office.