Inspector scrutinizes Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen's Springfield visit ahead of casino legislation

Saturday 21st December 2019

ROCKFORD -- The inspector general in the Office of the Illinois Secretary of State is looking into whether lobbying laws were violated in May when members of Rockford's state legislative delegation invited rock star Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick onto the House and Senate floors.

Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Secretary of State, said he was limited in what he could say, but confirmed the office had opened an inquiry into whether Nielsen was acting as an unregistered lobbyist in response to issues raised in a Dec. 18 news report about the visit.

"It was brought to our attention and we are doing our due diligence," Druker said.

Nielsen is a Rockford booster and has for years supported efforts to bring a casino to the city.

But Nielsen's wife is an investor in the proposed Hard Rock Casino Rockford, where there are plans to sell his signature merchandise. Nielsen's May visit to Springfield came as casino advocates mustered support for legislation that would expand casino gambling in the state, and he has served as the face of the Hard Rock venture during public events.

Those ties prompted WCIA-3 Champaign Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Maxwell in news reports to question whether Nielsen's visit to the House and Senate floors violated rules of those bodies or state lobbying laws.

"I was in Springfield to promote Rockford for a casino license because I know what a great thing this will be for our community -- creating thousands of good jobs working in a fun environment and adding to our economy," Nielsen said in a written statement to the Rockford Register Star.

"I've been in Springfield several times since 2007, back when the legislature made April 1 Cheap Trick Day. And I've always supported Rockford as a great spot for a casino."

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said outside influences played no role in the city's decision to certify the Hard Rock project as its choice to apply to the Illinois Gaming Board for Rockford's casino license. A team of city officials and consultants endorsed Hard Rock as the best choice over two other proposals.

"We ran an incredibly transparent process, one that I think went above and beyond what was required for us by state law from an ethical standpoint," McNamara said. "At the city of Rockford, we didn't listen to any of the outside voices. None of them. We had a number who were trying to be as loud as possible and I think we did a really wonderful job and made a concerted effort to not listen to them."

State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, said that although Nielsen shook hands and posed for pictures while on the floor, he wasn't lobbying members of the Senate during his visit to the Capitol.

Syverson said no specific casino legislation was under consideration at the time.

"We had all the votes lined up already, so when the bill was drafted we would be ready to go," Syverson said. "We didn't need any help in the Senate. We didn't need him to lobby and he wasn't lobbying."

State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, said he didn't view Nielsen's actions as lobbying when the singer visited the House floor the same day.

"He made two appearances in both chambers, said 'Hello,' and took pictures with people," Sosnowski said. "He was more in his role as lead performer of Cheap Trick."

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