Sky Owner Fined For Unregistered Lobbying Of Lightfoot Over Gaming Bill

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Chicago Sky owner Michael Alter was fined $5,000 by the Chicago Board of Ethics on Wednesday for “unregistered lobbying” of Mayor Lori Lightfoot as he continues seeking to obtain a sports wagering license in Illinois for the WNBA team.

In listing its ruling, the city agency noted: “Based on publicly available documents indicating that a businessperson may have engaged in unregistered lobbying of the Mayor, the Board determined, at its July 2021 meeting, there was probable cause to conclude the respondent violated Section 2-156-245 of the Ordinance (entitled ‘Failure to Register’).” The summary listed Alter as the respondent.

The board, which heard from Alter earlier this month, voted 4-0 that he had violated the ordinance by lobbying Lightfoot to influence “administrative action” on behalf of the Sky without his being registered as a lobbyist. The Chicago Tribune reported Alter had emailed Chicago first lady Amy Eshelman in seeking help to obtain a sports wagering license for the Sky.

Alter released a statement saying he disagreed with the Board of Ethics’ decision and noting he is registered as a lobbyist in Illinois, which would allow him to lobby state legislators on the subject of sports wagering:

I strongly disagree with the Chicago Board of Ethics ruling that I violated the city ordinance by failing to register as a lobbyist. We are currently reviewing the board’s decision and our options for responding. I reached out to the Mayor to ask her to vocalize her support to the state legislature to correct the state’s egregious omission from the 2019 gaming law, which granted sports licenses for all the major sport’s teams — except the Chicago Sky. The entire focus of my efforts was on the state legislature — which is why I registered as a lobbyist with the state. At no time did I seek to influence or affect any city law, policy, administrative action or any other matter regarding the City of Chicago; moreover, the Mayor has no authority over the state legislature. Nor were my efforts an attempt to “influence” the Mayor; the Mayor did not need to be “influenced”: her support for the Chicago Sky was well known and longstanding.

 Most importantly, the board’s overly broad reading of the ordinance sets an extremely dangerous precedent: it makes suspect any and every outreach by a business owner or CEO of a company, small or large, who speaks to elected city officials to promote their business interests. This would have a chilling effect on the essential dialogue between business leaders and elected officials and lead to the absurd conclusion that every business owner and CEO must register as a lobbyist to engage with their elected leaders.

 The work of the Board of Ethics is EXTREMELY important to the City of Chicago and I vigorously support their work. It would be a great service if the board focused on the important ethical issues facing the city rather than restricting the ability of business leaders to speak with their elected officials without hiring or registering as a lobbyist.

Trying to get the Sky on equal footing for sports betting

The WNBA franchise was not listed among the professional sports teams eligible for a sports wagering license in 2019 when Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed a massive gaming expansion bill that also legalized sports betting.

State Rep. Lamont Robinson introduced a bill (HB 5812) in July 2020 that would have authorized “a professional women’s sports team that has been in existence at least 10 years” to apply for a master sports wagering license, but the General Assembly did not take up the bill prior to the swearing-in of the current 102nd General Assembly in January.

A bill (SB 521) currently awaiting state Senate action, which could come as early as next month during the General Assembly veto session, has an amendment that would make Wintrust Arena — where the Sky play their home games — eligible to seek a sports facility sports wagering license with the ability to open a retail sportsbook.

SB 521, which overwhelmingly passed the House in the final hours of May’s legislative session but failed to receive concurrence in the Senate before the General Assembly adjourned, also would remove parts of the college carveout involving in-state schools. Bettors would be able to place pre-game wagers on such games, but only in person at retail sportsbooks across the state.

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Chris Altruda has been a sportswriter with ESPN, The Associated Press, and STATS over more than two decades. He recently expanded into covering sports betting and gambling around the Midwest.

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