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Jon DePaolis, Freelance Reporter
10:55 am CDT May 15, 2019

During an often contentious and mudslinging election season in Orland Park, Mayor Keith Pekau — who was not on the ballot but supported the People Over Politics slate of candidates that swept the Village trustees race — was accused of an ethics violation.

In a robocall that went out just weeks before the April 2 election, Pekau was accused of accepting a free golf membership to Crystal Tree Golf and Country Club in Orland Park — something detractors of the mayor claimed is a violation of the Illinois Gift Ban Act and possibly a violation of the State’s election laws.

Just before the election, Pekau confirmed he was offered an honorary membership to Crystal Tree. He stated that the Village’s police chief and a local Cook County commissioner also receive honorary memberships.

Pekau — who was a paying member at Crystal Tree prior to his election as mayor in 2017 — said the honorary membership offers him full access to the club but he still pays for certain things he does there, including carts, caddies and food.

“I still have to pay for anything that I would normally have to pay for,” Pekau said. “I don’t have to pay for anything I normally wouldn’t have to pay for.”


Confirmation of a practice

The Orland Park Prairie confirmed that Crystal Tree has offered the honorary membership to certain Village and State officials over the years as a way of extending an olive branch to the community in which the club resides. That includes both the current mayor and the former mayor, Dan McLaughlin.

Typically, the honorary membership involves waiver of the club’s initiation fee, if any initiation fee is in place at the time; and waiver of the monthly dues, meaning for regular members approximately $575 a month (which includes greens fees for golf) and roughly $250 a month for social members.

The honorary member, however, is responsible for any monthly charges at the club, such as for food or guest fees.


Carroll’s crusade

In a January letter, then-Trustee Michael Carroll — who has been a vocal critic of Pekau since the new mayor was elected — sent a complaint to the Illinois State Board of Elections alleging that the mayor had committed a violation by receiving “an annual complimentary membership to Crystal Tree Country Club of Orland Park, with an estimated value in excess of $5,000 annually.”

In the complaint letter, Carroll said he had reviewed the mayor’s quarterly filings and wrote, “it appears he has never reported this donation.”

Pekau confirmed to The Prairie that he did not report the honorary membership because he did not believe it needed to be reported, as it was not a campaign contribution.

“The dues give you access to the club, but there’s really no cost to the club for that,” Pekau explained.

In March, Matt Dietrich, public information officer for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said the golf membership is not an issue with which the State Board would be involved. Rather, he said it would be covered under the gift ban rules noted in the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.

“Answering whether there is a violation of that act would be the responsibility of the ethics officer for the government body on which the officer in question serves,” Dietrich said.

Dietrich said every governmental body in Illinois is required to have an ethics officer.

“We regulate campaign contributions, and this would not fall under a campaign contribution,” he said. “It sounds like this is something that is one of those things that they give to elected officials for the prestige of having them play at their club.”

The Prairie attempted to contact the Village’s ethics officer — Dennis G. Walsh, of the firm Klein, Thorpe & Jenkins Ltd. — but messages were not returned. When asked at the May 6 board meeting, Walsh declined to comment on the matter.

According to the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, a gift “means any gratuity, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other tangible or intangible item having monetary value including, but not limited to, cash, food and drink, and honoraria for speaking engagements related to or attributable to government employment or the official position of an employee, member, or officer.”

On April 1, the Village of Orland Park Board of Trustees adopted a new ethics ordinance prohibiting officials from accepting gratuities or gifts that “can reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence him or her in the performance of their official duty/duties” or as a reward. The ordinance, before it was repealed May 6 by the new Village Board, defined a gift as “something given without recompense.”

The ordinance also stated an exception under Section F, titled “Exclusions,” that “This Section shall not prohibit a Village Official from accepting minor gifts in accordance with the Illinois Gift Ban Act when the gift is extended during the course of Village business and no return promise is made by the recipient.”

Pekau originally cast the lone dissenting vote on the ethics ordinance, citing the vague language used in the ordinance and that he felt the ordinance would be used to attack people for political purposes. On May 6, the Village Board repealed it by a 4-3 vote.

Pekau, when asked about the possibility of an ethics violations regarding the Crystal Tree membership, said, “This is all about discrediting me. It has nothing to do with anything else.”

Carroll spoke to The Prairie at length in January after sending the complaint letter to the State Board. Carroll, who decided not to seek re-election in 2019, said this was not about trying to diminish the mayor politically prior to the election.

“My frame of mind, starting from May of 2017 to today [Jan. 29], has been to do what I promised everyone I would do, which was represent the residents of Orland Park to the best of my ability,” Carroll said. “I’ve been willing to work with him. He can say it is about the election until he is blue in the face, but I think the voting record of the board since he’s been in office belies that. We have voted with him … upwards of 85 percent, and it might be as high as 98 percent of the time.”

Carroll said that while he was not running for re-election he also was not willing “to sit back” in the face of what he considered a violation.

“I will continue to hold him accountable,” Carroll said at the time, noting at the time that he was not sure if the State Board or the State’s Attorney’s Office — another entity to which Carroll planned to file a complaint with against Pekau — would choose to pursue any formal action.

“But at least I’ll know that I’ve been trying to hold him accountable, because I don’t see anything else that is going to change his behavior at this point,” Carroll said.


McLaughlin’s membership

Pekau said he knew the honorary membership was something offered to officials prior to his taking office because he’s been a dues-paying member for years.

McLaughlin confirmed with The Prairie in late March he accepted the honorary membership from the country club, with some initial hesitation.

“For years, Crystal Tree had asked me about taking an honorary membership, and I really didn’t want to,” McLaughlin said. “I told them why. It just seemed like I was getting something for nothing, and it just didn’t seem right.”

McLaughlin said the honorary membership was mentioned again to him 3-5 years ago, during what was his final term as mayor.

“I said, ‘I really didn’t think it looked good for me to get something for nothing,’ and they said, ‘We’re not giving you anything,’” McLaughlin said. “‘All’s we’re giving you is access to the [club to] take somebody out to lunch and get away from the crowd or the regular restaurant type of thing if you have to meet with somebody. You’d still have to pay for it.’”

McLaughlin said he accepted that offer. As he saw it, he said it was a social membership where he only had access to use the restaurant.

“I had to pay the bill, just like a regular restaurant — so I didn’t get anything for nothing, other than access to the dining room or the restaurant,” he said.

McLaughlin said he only used that access twice. He also said he did not report it on his quarterly filings with the State Board.


What’s next?

Whether or not accepting the honorary membership to the golf club was tantamount to an ethics violation appears to be up for debate, even weeks after the election season. If it did violate the gift ban rules, several officials — including officials not involved with the Village — could be implicated.

One thing is for sure: With all the back and forth, there hasn’t been much time for golf.

“I use [the membership] less than I used to,” Pekau said in late March. “I had more time on my hands.”