The state’s former community health and fitness director – a nicely-regarded advisor to Gov. J.B. Pritzker throughout the COVID-19 crisis – is underneath investigation by a point out ethics agency for taking a CEO position at a professional medical non-income overseen and funded by the point out company she led.

Dr. Ngozi Ezike, a continual, reassuring figure alongside Pritzker through pandemic information conferences, stepped down from her $178,000-for each-year condition publish in March. In April, she acknowledged an offer you to direct Sinai Health and fitness System — a person of the state’s top rated medical nonprofits.

The Illinois Ethics Act calls for section heads like Ezike to wait around a calendar year ahead of accepting positions with companies that hold contracts overseen by their departments, or with firms their departments license or regulate. And although in place of work they can not have interaction in position negotiations with businesses that lobby their organizations. 

The law is intended to reduce the cozy revolving doorway involving state officials and the organizations their businesses fund and regulate.

The Illinois Business office of the Executive Inspector Common opened an ethics investigation of Ezike amid inquiries by the Superior Govt Affiliation.

Contacted by phone, Ezike — after a fixture in day by day media — declined to be interviewed. Alternatively she mentioned the BGA would get a get in touch with from her attorney. “Let me have your contact facts and I can have them get to out to you,” Ezike claimed.

One particular of her attorneys explained to the BGA Ezike’s new situation was not subject matter to the state’s revolving door regulation due to the fact the much more than $2 million in grant agreements Ezike signed with Sinai had been not “contracts.’’

“I do not imagine Dr. Ezike violated the revolving door,” stated Heather Wier Vaught. “From a lawful viewpoint, it is not obvious reduce. That is portion of the trouble with Illinois’ regulation. The revolving door legislation is not apparent slash. It is very grey.”

Vaught until 2018 was counsel for 11 yrs to previous Speaker of the Property Michael Madigan, who was a highly effective voice in shaping the language of the revolving doorway legislation and other point out legislation through the earlier 40 several years.

“I understand the legitimacy of the thoughts. I definitely imagine that somebody has to request them,” Vaught instructed the BGA.

“Dr. Ezike consulted with the proper folks, and she engaged counsel to supply aid to her with her changeover from the state, and she was advised that it was permissible to settle for work with Sinai,” Vaught stated.

“She is an incredibly ethical human being and had several men and women critique this,” Vaught stated.

The BGA investigation examined government email messages and deal documents that elevate queries about Ezike’s swift shift to a firm intricately concerned with her agency.

Defining the phrase “contract”

From March 16, 2021 until eventually the finish of Ezike’s tenure as director a 12 months afterwards, the Illinois Section of General public Wellness awarded five grants to Sinai Health and fitness totaling $2,160,803, according to files supplied to the BGA by the point out comptroller.

Just about every of the five grant agreements are labeled “CONTRACT” in daring form on the very first web site. The term “contract” is on the footer of every single website page. IDPH’s oversight is spelled out. And the grant agreements bear Ezike’s signature. The money had been for the Clinic Health Security Grant Plan and the Asthma State Plan, amid other programs.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks with Dr. Ngozi O. Ezike as officials assemble for a push convention on the very first day of inoculations at the United Centre mass vaccination web page in the Close to West Aspect community on March 9, 2021. (Colin Boyle/Block Club)

Vaught claimed these grant agreements do not qualify as contracts below the state’s revolving doorway law.

“I imagine that is boilerplate language demanded by the comptroller,” Vaught mentioned of the term ‘contract’ on each individual website page of the documents. “They’re statutorily mandated grants, not contracts issue to the revolving doorway provision in the ethics act.”

“I would say it truly is an interpretation,’’ Vaught explained. “She wasn’t straight associated in awarding the grant.”

On April 11 — about a month right after she still left her condition put up, and a few days before she accepted the Sinai occupation — Ezike despatched an e-mail to the Place of work of the Government Inspector Typical to protect the legality of her swift transition to the personal sector.

(Cesar Calderon/BGA)

“My counsel suggested me there ended up no contracts, regulatory or licensing choices associated to Sinai that would invoke a prohibition,” Ezike wrote to OEIG chief Susan Haling.

Ezike educated Haling she had discussed the issue with Gov. Pritzker’s ethics officer as perfectly as the ethics officer for her own public wellness department.

Sinai will get 3 point out health division licenses

In addition to the contracts prohibition, the revolving doorway law also areas a one particular-year ban on department heads getting compensation from entities regulated or licensed by the company they oversaw.

In her last year as state health and fitness director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike signed grant agreements totaling $2.1 million with Sinai Health System. Ezike’s legal professional explained these are not contracts. (Olivia Obineme/BGA)

Sinai Well being System includes a few hospitals certified by IDPH for the duration of the past 12 months of Ezike’s point out tenure: Mount Sinai Clinic Health care Middle, Schwab Rehab Hospital and Holy Cross Medical center.

Illinois hospitals should display their up-to-day condition licenses in general public locations, and less than the Illinois Healthcare facility Licensing Act, IDPH reviews Illinois hospitals to assure they have ample funds and clinical staff members to care for individuals.

Vaught disputed the which means of the phrase “licensing decision” in the revolving doorway prohibition, saying Ezike and her public health and fitness office had no regulate around no matter if a healthcare facility could renew its Illinois license.

“I do not believe DPH has any discretion to deny renewal if the clinic files as demanded by the statute,” Vaught claimed. “It’s automatically renewed. … Licensing is a perfunctory, ministerial act. … It is really not a selection.”

In her April 11 electronic mail to the inspector normal, Ezike mentioned her Office of Public Wellness ethics officer “confirmed there had been no regulatory or licensing selections built by DPH through the prior 12 months, apart from a perfunctory renewal that every single hospital obtained on December 31, 2021.”

Discussing a new task
In a June 10 overall look at Household Guidance Centers in Chicago to indicator a psychological overall health omnibus invoice, Gov. J.B. Pritzker was questioned about the BGA report on Ezike’s transition to Sinai. Below is a clip of his remarks. (Video clip courtesy of BlueRoomStream)

Sinai’s longstanding previous CEO Karen Teitelbaum announced her departure from the nonprofit professional medical process in September 2021, and Ezike was before long a main applicant to switch her.

Email communications acquired by the BGA by means of open data legal guidelines demonstrate Ezike contacted then-IDPH ethics officer Evan McGinley in February — a thirty day period right before she resigned — to solicit guidance about her approaching changeover to the non-public sector.

IDPH stated it could not deliver the BGA any information demonstrating the investigation or advice McGinley delivered Ezike – even nevertheless he was not her non-public legal professional but a point out employee serving a top federal government leader.

“The Performing Ethics Officer for IDPH at the time had preliminary discussions on the ‘Revolving Door’ provisions and how they implement to Dr. Ezike,” an IDPH spokesman mentioned in an emailed reaction to BGA questions. “Those discussions have been private.”

McGinley declined comment.

Times just after Ezike’s February outreach to McGinley, data exhibit, Governor Pritzker’s ethics officer Whitney Rosen responded to a individual conversation from Ezike.

Emily Bittner, Pritzker’s Deputy Chief of Workers for Communications, said Ezike hardly ever gave Rosen any data about the place Ezike could land, and Rosen neither conducted an evaluation for Ezike nor gave her particular information.

Alternatively, the BGA uncovered, Rosen despatched Ezike a single web site summary of the revolving door legislation, and spelled out the prohibition from negotiating with an entity that lobbied Ezike’s agency even though Ezike was in business office.

Rosen’s summary of the legislation added that Ezike could have interaction in “informational interviews” that focus on work and the wage range. Conversations past a wage selection have been prohibited, Rosen wrote.

Governing administration information and news accounts recommend Sinai was previously speaking with Ezike about the CEO place.

On March 4, even though Ezike was even now IDPH Director, Crain’s Chicago Enterprise reported that Ezike “has been provided a work as the upcoming President and CEO of Sinai. … Sinai Chicago gave an supply to Ezike for the top rated function in February, in accordance to a Crain’s resource. It is unclear if she has recognized the offer.”

WBEZ also noted that day that “the Sinai board of administrators has been authorized to negotiate an offer you with Ezike.” 

Vaught said Ezike did not improperly negotiate for the Sinai CEO situation whilst she was in state workplace.

“I can notify you that she did not have interaction in any negotiations similar to work while she was even now at IDPH,” Vaught instructed the BGA.

“Someone owning a dialogue, somebody reaching out to someone and stating, ‘We’d like to converse to you about a job,’ does not represent an offer, does not represent a negotiation,” Vaught stated. “So possessing a conversation does not set off the revolving doorway.”

In her April 11 e-mail to Haling, Ezike reported she did not negotiate for her new Sinai position right up until right after she remaining IDPH.

“After my ultimate working day with the Condition, I began conversations and negotiations with Sinai,” Ezike wrote to Haling on April 11. “I intend to sign a agreement with Sinai this week and will start out employment in June.”

In its most the latest public tax filing, Sinai disclosed spending $280,000 every year on lobbying, and independent condition documents show Sinai retained two corporations that lobbied the Illinois public well being department.

A Sinai Health and fitness spokeswoman advised the BGA Sinai welcomed Ezike as its new CEO but would not response issues about her wage or selecting. Sinai paid out its final CEO $1.2 million per year, according to its federal tax filings.

“In consideration of a present-day evaluate of the system by the Business office of the Government Inspector Normal, Sinai will not remark even further,” spokeswoman Olivia Arns reported.

Bittner, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pritzker, termed the questions elevated by the BGA “perverse,” and pointed out that Sinai is one of Illinois’ most important professional medical institutions — a nationally recognized basic safety web and urban training technique that treats mostly Black and Latino people at its two most important hospitals.

“Dr. Ezike demonstrated her solid moral compass and determination to the folks of Illinois every single working day for three several years during an terrible international pandemic,” Bittner explained in an emailed statement.

“It is perverse to check out to tarnish a strong and highly regarded chief who could go anywhere she wants but selected to once more serve the most vulnerable,” Bittner claimed.

A Madigan-sponsored reform to Illinois’ revolving door regulation

Potential violations of Illinois’ revolving door law and its a person-yr cooling off provision are investigated by the point out Office of the Government Inspector Normal, which refers alleged violations up to the Illinois Attorney Basic.

The AG acts in essence as prosecutor in bringing the “founded” cases just before Illinois’ 9-member Government Ethics Fee.

A 2009 revision to Illinois’ revolving doorway regulation drew a sharp line involving small-level “C List” state staff members and the so-known as “H Listers” earlier mentioned them.

The minimal-level C Listers induce revolving doorway situations if they personally and significantly took aspect in a contract or licensing choice by their agency, then ended up compensated by the contractor.

Vaught helped compose the 2009 legislation, which was sponsored by her boss at the time, then-Speaker Madigan. His revisions expanded the revolving doorway provisions to encompass “H Listers” – office heads and leading officers who may possibly be held accountable no matter of no matter whether they personally or considerably participated in producing the regulatory or licensing selections at situation.

The legislation was penned to produce an complete ban in opposition to “H Listers” getting employment with firms that hold contracts with their agencies, Madigan explained on the flooring of the General Assembly on May possibly 21, 2009.

(Colin Boyle/Block Club)

“They are definitely prohibited from accepting employment compensation for one particular 12 months from an entity if that entity was party to a point out agreement or point out contracts well worth $25 thousand or much more,” Madigan explained.

Because then, Illinois has found only two comparable revolving doorway allegations against section heads.

Just after decades-extended litigation, both of those former leaders paid a whole of $120,000 in fines with no admitting wrongdoing.

Previous Division of Health care and Family members Solutions Director Barry Maram was accused of violating the revolving doorway provision following he stepped down from point out govt in 2010 and commenced working for a law business that experienced contracts involving his agency.

Maram – a prime overall health treatment advisor to then-Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat – settled his case by paying out $100,000 in 2014, four many years after he still left his point out situation.

In a letter to the OEIG, Quinn’s office environment defended Maram, saying he was an moral person who designed a superior faith energy to seek out suggestions and comply with the law, case information display.

Former insurance plan main Anne Melissa Dowling, who was appointed by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, compensated $20,625 to settle her situation in 2019, two yrs just after she still left place of work.

Dowling was accused of violating the provision when she stepped down in 2017 and took a board position with an affiliate of an insurance policy corporation controlled by her company. She argued that her department’s regulation of the insurance policy firm was “perfunctory, non-substantive, and non discretionary,” circumstance files show.

Maram and Dowling did not respond to requests for remark.

“A squirrely loophole”

If Ezike is allowed to skirt the revolving doorway law beneath these conditions, then the regulation by itself is essentially worthless, just one ethics reform advocate advised the BGA.

Alisa Kaplan, Govt Director of the transparency business Reform for Illinois, mentioned the revolving door provision ought to have been activated if Ezike had discussions with Sinai.

“This ‘negotiation’ as opposed to ‘informational interview’ enterprise is the kind of squirrely loophole that can make people today distrust govt,” Kaplan told the BGA.

“Does everyone actually think that a “discussion” of “options and wage selection” is not an vital action toward work? Of class this kind of a discussion could pose a conflict.”

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, also reviewed the BGA’s reporting and Vaught’s responses.

“It looks very clear that the prohibition must apply to her using the career with the medical center,” Redfield stated. “The rule of law should really utilize to everyone in an equal manner. No one gets a move, regardless of no matter if they are a very good particular person or a lousy person.

“If Heather’s interpretation stands, then the revolving doorway statute is considerably considerably less than it would seem and likely a great deal fewer than people who sponsored it claimed at the time,” Redfield said.

“This is about one scenario, but it is also about how Illinois legislatures and governors typically produce ethics laws that turns out to be a great deal fewer than what meets the eye – way as well substantially ‘feel superior,’ and not enough reform.”