|This might be difficult to believe, but something smells fishy in Illinois politics.
A fresh odor is rising from the 118th House District.
Until recently, state Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, represented constituents living within Illinois’ southernmost district. He first took office in 2003.
Politics runs in the Phelps family. Brandon is the nephew of former Illinois House member and U.S. Rep. David Phelps – one-fourth of the gospel-singing Phelps Brothers Quartet.
Turns out Illinoisans may have witnessed something of a miracle.
Brandon Phelps resigned from his Illinois House seat on Sept. 1. In a statement, he said he did so “in the interest of [his] personal health.” But on Sept. 14, Phelps registered as a lobbyist with the Illinois secretary of state’s office.
He is risen, indeed.
A look at Phelps’ client list shows he’s continuing a tradition of state lawmakers who formulate energy policy while serving in Springfield only to take lobbying work from energy interests upon leaving office.
Since 2000, at least two dozen former lawmakers have worked as lobbyists for ComEd or its parent company, Exelon. A majority of those lawmakers served on their chamber’s energy or public utilities committees. Some even chaired those committees. (You can read more about this phenomenon in my August column, “Former Illinois lawmakers powered by energy interests.”)
Phelps now joins those ranks, albeit with different energy giants for the time being.
Phelps served as the chairman of the House Public Utilities Committee before resigning. He was also the vice chair of the House Energy Committee. Now, the same energy interests regulated by Phelps’ committees are among his clients.
The secretary of state’s office shows Ameren and Foresight Energy LLC are retaining the services of Dorgan, Butcher & Phelps LLC, where Phelps is trying out his new gig.
Ameren Illinois is one of the largest energy utilities in the state next to ComEd, delivering power to 1.2 million electric and more than 800,000 natural gas customers in central and southern Illinois. Foresight runs four coal mining complexes in central and southern Illinois, two of which are just outside Phelps’ former district.
Both clients have obviously held a major interest in bills Phelps handled in his committee leadership roles. And they’ve spent accordingly. Ameren groups have contributed nearly $85,000 to Phelps’ campaign fund since 2002, with the most recent gift coming in June.
And Foresight has given $28,500 to Phelps’ campaign since 2010, with its latest donation coming about a week before his resignation.
Phelps’ lobbying shop handles more than just energy interests. But other clients may still be looking to cash in on the former lawmaker’s committee connections. The University of Illinois must know Phelps served on the higher education appropriations committee, ditto for the Illinois State Dental Society and Phelps’ seat on the House committee in charge of health care licenses. Both entities are on his lobbying roster.
Phelps’ other clients include the Monsanto Company, the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers, the Smoke Free Alternatives Coalition of Illinois and the Vapor Technology Association.
What a friend they have in Brandon.
Phelps’ draw as a lobbyist obviously comes from his Statehouse connections and former role in the legislative process. But at least until 2019, he’ll also have one particularly receptive lawmaker on which to rely: his cousin, Natalie Phelps Finnie.
Natalie is the daughter of David Phelps, and has carried on the singing congressman’s legacy in her own gospel group – the Phelps Sisters. She was appointed to Brandon’s House seat soon after he resigned.
Maybe a line from one gospel tune covered by the Phelps Sisters can bring some solace to Illinoisans concerned that such blatant conflicts of interest might go unnoticed.
“Oh right never loses, and wrong never wins. And grace will always be greater than sin.”