SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — In a brazen move that violated Senate rules, state Senator Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) brought Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician Rick Nielsen, the guitarist for Cheap Trick, onto the chamber floor in May during a sensitive time when his colleagues were considering whether or not to approve a Rockford casino and when Nielsen was lobbying support for one.
Nielsen stands to gain significant personal wealth if the Illinois Gaming Board approves the Hard Rock casino bid because his wife invested in the project. Nielsen is also in business with Syverson through the Stockholm Inn in Rockford.
On May 15th, Nielsen visited the statehouse to build support for the Rockford casino project. During his visit, he staged a public press conference from the statehouse press room, sought an audience with the governor, and passed out guitar picks to legislators on the floor in the House and Senate, all in support of approving a Rockford casino.
“I’m trying to help in the gaming industry,” Nielsen told TV cameras during his visit. “I came down here to see if I could kick it in the butt a little bit.”
In the same month, the Rockford Chamber of Commerce took out a full page ad in a local newspaper to urge Governor Pritzker to support the casino measure. Nielsen arrived two weeks later, took on the role of front man for a Rockford casino, and searched for ways to get meetings with decision makers.
“I’d like to see Governor Pritzker,” Nielsen said. “I want to talk to him.”
House rules that restrict floor access to Representatives, authorized staff, and special guests. Nielsen gained access to the House floor as a guest of Representatives Maurice West (D-Rockford) and Joe Sosnowski (R-Rockford).
House Speaker Michael Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown confirmed on Tuesday that the Clerk’s Office approved a floor pass that allowed Nielsen to enter the House chamber. Brown, though, said that decision has come under review within the last 24 hours. He said, “It may be that we need to tighten the restrictions.”
Representative Tim Butler, a Republican from Springfield, agreed that Nielsen’s presence on the House floor was improper.
“I think in that capacity, when he’s here for a day to advocate for the Rockford casino, that probably was not the ethically right thing to do,” Butler said during an interview on Capitol Connection.
According to Senate rules, “No person who is directly or indirectly interested in defeating or promoting any pending legislative measure, if required to be registered as a lobbyist, is allowed access to the floor of the Senate at any time during the session.”
According to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, Nielsen never registered as a lobbyist. Had Nielsen registered as a lobbyist, he certainly would have been banned from entering the chamber. A Senate spokesman said, “The Secretary of the Senate was not aware of any reason he should not be a guest on the Senate floor.”
Nielsen had previously been recognized on the Senate floor for his accomplishments in the music industry. As a return visitor who came back during the heat of the busiest part of the legislative session, he was able to slip under the radar and onto the Senate floor largely undetected.
While Syverson claims Nielsen was not technically a lobbyist, John Patterson, a spokesman for the Senate president said, “the intent is to not have people directly interested in the passage of legislation on the Senate floor.”
Nielsen’s efforts were successful. State lawmakers approved a casino license within the city limits of Rockford as a part of a $45 billion capital infrastructure plan. The City of Rockford later certified an application from the Hard Rock investor group, and sent its stamp of approval to the Illinois Gaming Board, where it awaits final approval.
In a phone call on Monday, Syverson initially denied that Nielsen lobbied support for a Rockford casino, saying, “He didn’t talk about it at all. He didn’t say a thing. He didn’t talk to anybody about any casino or any of those issues.”
However, the evidence in public statements, including Syverson’s own words during a May 15th press conference, prove that claim is false.
“They are here this afternoon to talk about the importance of gaming in Illinois, and why Illinois should be passing gaming legislation,” Syverson said at the time.
After Syverson was reminded about Nielsen’s public comments and his own, and Nielsen’s actions to pass out guitar picks with imagery that supported a casino in Rockford, Syverson quickly changed his tune and acknowledged that Nielsen “had maybe had some talks with Hard Rock, but he was down there as a celebrity.”
Facing scrutiny from Rockford aldermen about his own role in lobbying local governments to approve the Hard Rock bid, Senator Syverson has defended Nielsen from ethical questions about his visit to the House and Senate floors.
When asked if Nielsen might answer questions from a reporter about his visit to the statehouse, Syverson shot back, “Of course he won’t. I’ll make sure he doesn’t.”
Syverson called the breach of decorum, “miniscule at most,” and attempted to discourage reporting on the event, saying, “You’re asking questions that no one else cares about.”