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Conflict of interest with new lawyer in Aurora?
By Amy Boerema | Daily Herald Staff

Richard Irvin

 

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Published: 9/14/2007 5:46 PM

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An Aurora alderman assigned to pick an attorney to perform an independent review of Planned Parenthood's permit process selected one whose firm contributed to his campaign, records show.

Mayor Tom Weisner appointed aldermen Richard Irvin and Bob O'Connor, both lawyers, to find an outside attorney with no prior city involvement to conduct the review.

The pair last week recommended Phillip Luetkehans of Schirott & Luetkehans for the job. Their Sept. 7 memo to aldermen emphasizes Luetkehans has no past involvement or association with the city or its attorneys.

But a Daily Herald review of campaign disclosure records shows the Itasca law firm donated $250 on Jan. 6, 2005, to Irvin's unsuccessful mayoral campaign.

The link raises concerns, O'Connor and Weisner said today in response to Daily Herald inquiries about the connection.

"Did I know about it? No," O'Connor said. "Would it have made a difference? Yes, if I had known."

The mayor is "definitely disappointed," city spokesman Carie Anne Ergo said. The point of having the city council choose an attorney was to avoid a conflict of interest, or even the appearance of one, she said.

"This certainly could be interpreted as an appearance of a conflict," she said.

Irvin said he was unaware of the contribution. But he, as well as aldermen Stephanie Kifowit and Chris Beykirch, said it's irrelevant and poses no conflict.

The city is reviewing Planned Parenthood's application process after abortion foes claimed the organization defrauded the city by applying for permits under Gemini Development, a subsidiary of Planned Parenthood.

The clinic, at New York Street and Oakhurst Drive, is scheduled to open Tuesday, but that date is up in the air. City officials told Planned Parenthood it can't open until the review is done, even though no timeline was set for its completion.

Meanwhile, clinic officials filed a federal lawsuit Thursday, asking the court to issue an injunction so it can open on time. They're expected to meet in court Monday.

Aldermen Irvin, Kifowit, Lawrence and Beykirch objected to city staff's first pick for an attorney, Richard Martens, after his firm was shown to have ties with the city's outside legal counsel.

No aldermen objected to Luetkehans, whom Irvin and O'Connor announced on Tuesday had started work.

Irvin, who has expressed concern with the clinic's application process and also attended an anti-abortion rally, said his campaign raised $160,000 from numerous sources and he doesn't remember Luetkehans.

"I had a finance chair who dealt with most of the checks; my only knowledge I received a check was when I had to sign a multitude of letters to thank people. As of today ... I cannot tell you who (donated); there were so many."

The firm was recommended separately to both him and O'Connor, he said. Irvin had a phone interview with Luetkehans about prior association with the city, its attorneys or any groups representing or opposing Planned Parenthood.

When asked if, during that talk, any mention of a political contribution was made, Irvin said, "I cannot recall that conversation."

Luetkehans, a Wheaton Park District commissioner, said he didn't remember the gift, either, and he and Irvin have never met. His firm makes about 100 political donations a year; he said he likely chose Irvin based on a client recommendation.

The permitting investigation doesn't involve Irvin or his staff, Beykirch said, and so "in my opinion, it poses no conflict."

Kifowit agreed, saying while it would have been nice to know about it beforehand, "it's a stretch."

However, Alderman Rick Lawrence said the council should find another attorney to do the review.

"We called for a truly independent investigation," he said. "I can't say this one doesn't matter. I'm the first to jump on the mayor for taking money from people he does business with. It's not right."

Clinic officials say the connection isn't a surprise.

"Our opinion is the process has already been politicized," said Steve Trombley, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood/Chicago Area.

While Pro-Life Action League spokesman Eric Scheidler said he doesn't see a conflict, if the council does, "perhaps another attorney should be chosen."

As for what's next, O'Connor and Weisner said they're unsure, but likely will take the weekend to consider options.

"We're all going to sort ourselves out as to where we're going to go with this," O'Connor said. "I'm sure there's going to be some strong reaction from council."