State Sen. Elgie Sims approached in federal criminal investigation into alleged influence peddling by body-cam company

·9 min read

Illinois state Sen. Elgie Sims was approached in the spring by federal authorities investigating potential influence peddling involving a police body-camera manufacturer that hired the law firm where Sims works as a lobbyist, sources have told the Tribune.

Sims, 51, a Chicago Democrat who spearheaded the state’s massive criminal justice reform law passed last year and represents portions of the South Side and south suburbs, was contacted by the FBI in early May as the investigation intensified, according to two sources who have knowledge of the investigation but are not authorized to speak about it publicly.

Sims’ attorney told the Tribune the senator has done nothing wrong.

The ongoing probe involves Axon Enterprise Inc., an Arizona law-enforcement technology company that hired law firm Foley & Lardner LLP to lobby the legislature in Springfield and Chicago, according to the sources. Sims is an “of-counsel” attorney at Foley, specializing in government affairs and public policy.

Investigators are looking into whether Axon — either directly or through other lobbying entities — improperly tried to influence Sims in his official duties as a member of the Illinois legislature working on the criminal justice legislation, which, among a slew of other reforms, requires every police officer in the state to wear a body camera by 2025, according to the sources.

Sims’ connections to Axon go back to at least 2020, when he listed the firm as one of his clients in a 2020 lobbyist disclosure form with the Chicago Board of Ethics, records show. On the form, when asked if he had received or anticipated receiving compensation for lobbying for Axon, Sims replied “yes,” though he later clarified in a letter to the board that he was only providing legal services.

As of Friday, no charges have been filed against anyone as part of the probe.

Sims’ criminal defense attorney, Thomas Anthony Durkin, told the Tribune in a statement that Sims’ actions on behalf of his constituents have never “been compromised or otherwise influenced.”

“In addition to being a State Senator, Elgie Sims is also an attorney with the Chicago law firm of Foley & Lardner, a well respected national and international law firm,” Durkin wrote in the statement. “At no time has Senator Sims done anything whatsoever inappropriate on behalf of Axon or any other client of the firm.”

When reached directly by telephone last week, Sims declined to comment.

Axon did not answer a list of questions sent by the Tribune but instead emailed a statement saying the company “is committed to conducting business with integrity and in accordance with both the law and the highest ethical standards.”

“We take these matters seriously and as part of our extensive efforts to assist the government have found zero indication of any unlawful conduct by Axon or its employees,” the statement read. “We respect and appreciate the process and will continue to fully cooperate.”

Representatives of Foley & Lardner did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment on the investigation.

Sims is the latest in a wave of current or former state lawmakers to come under federal scrutiny since 2019, including former House Speaker Michael Madigan, and former state Sens. Martin Sandoval, Terry Link, and Thomas Cullerton.

The probe lies in a familiar gray territory of Illinois politics, where lax ethics laws have made it legal for state lawmakers to lobby other units of government or provide legal services for businesses, even as those companies may have other direct interests in legislation or policy in Springfield.

In 2019, then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo, who moonlighted as a lobbyist at Chicago’s City Hall, was charged with attempting to bribe a colleague in the senate to sponsor legislation that would have been beneficial to a sweepstakes gaming company that Arroyo was representing. Arroyo pleaded guilty and was sentenced earlier this year to nearly 5 years in federal prison.

Lobbying was certainly in high gear when it came to the criminal justice reform package, a mammoth, 750-page piece of legislation sponsored by Sims and pushed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus after the outcry that followed the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

In addition to the body camera requirements, the array of changes in state law proposed in the bill ranged from ending cash bail to creating a robust system of tracking police misconduct and removing some impediments that prevent people from filing complaints against officers.

The changes drew praise from reform advocates and catcalls from Republicans and many in law enforcement, who have tried to tie the legislation to recent spikes in violent crime throughout Chicago and Illinois, even though many measures haven’t even taken effect yet.

Sims emerged as a driving force in negotiating the sweeping package, working behind the scenes and championing passage. When the bill headed to a final Senate vote in the closing hours of the previous legislative session in January 2021, Sims gave an impassioned speech.

“It is bold. It is transformational. It is supposed to be,” Sims said on the Senate floor, according to a transcript. “The people of Illinois sent us here. They sent us here to do better by them, not by ourselves. This bill is not about who we are, it is about the Illinois that we strive to be!”

The bill was passed in the Senate on a 32-23 vote just before 5 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2021, only hours before a new legislative session was to start. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it into law a month later.

The new law had huge potential benefits for Axon, a publicly traded company that is one of the nation’s largest suppliers of body-worn cameras, stun guns and other law enforcement-safety equipment.

Formerly known as TASER, Axon already had contracts with the Illinois State Police and dozens of county sheriffs’ offices and Illinois municipalities across the state, records show. One of its biggest clients is Chicago, which has paid Axon more than $43 million since 2016 for thousands of later-model “Axon 2″ body cameras and its line of SMART Tasers for Chicago police officers, records show.

Axon hired a variety of lobbyists in Springfield beginning in 2017, ranging from Washington K Street firm National Strategies to local contract lobbyists with political connections, public records show.

Beginning in 2019, Axon registered Esmael Ansari of Sausalito, California, as its main lobbyist and hired on contract Oak Brook-based GPG Strategies lobbyist Michael Axelrod, who remains listed through this year, records showed.

In January 2021, though, Axon again employed National Strategies Inc., a firm that connects businesses with lobbyists in various spheres of government interest across the country.

Over the course of 2021, National Strategies then hired various lobbyists. They included Rosemont-based Fidelity Consulting Group, which went on to contract with Scarabaeus LLC, which is the lobbying firm of former state Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and former budget guru whose legislative staffers once included Sims.

Trotter’s firm listed Axon Enterprise on 2021 state lobbyist records as what’s known as a “subclient.”

Trotter said in an interview Sunday he was hired to lobby to help Axon pass a follow-up bill to the major crime overhaul later in the spring session of 2021, and the subject he dealt with was not body cameras.

The follow-up bill sought to define in state law that using a Taser, another Axon product, was a “less lethal” option for police than a gun when apprehending a suspect in a crime, he said.

Trotter said the amendment was heavily negotiated with lawyers on both sides of the issue. It passed the House and did not come up for a vote in the full Senate, where more negotiations took place.

He said he lobbied the House, and that Sims was one of several lawmakers he talked to in the Senate. But Trotter said Sims was not the Senate point person on the proposed changes.

Trotter said he had not been contacted by federal authorities or subpoenaed.

National Strategies Inc., through local attorney Andrew DeVooght, released a statement Sunday, saying the company “unequivocally denies any wrongdoing.”

“For 26 years, NSI’s work across the country, including in Illinois, for hundreds of clients, has been both transparent and lawful. NSI is fully cooperating with the government’s investigation into this matter,’' the statement said.

Also in Springfield, Foley & Lardner listed Axon Enterprise as a client in July 2021, with attorney Myles “Mush” Berman as lobbyist. Foley & Lardner did not list Axon as a client in 2022, according to the secretary of state online records.

Berman did not respond to messages sent by the Tribune. Ansari, meanwhile, referred questions back to Axon.

Sims’ most recent economic interest statements, which he filed as a lawmaker in March, listed only Foley & Lardner as a source of any outside income in excess of $7,500.

In Chicago, meanwhile, Sims registered in 2020 as a lobbyist employed by Foley & Lardner and listed Axon as a client throughout the year, and National Strategies during three of the year’s quarterly reports, online records show.

Sims’ city lobbyist disclosure showed National Strategies, on behalf of Axon, had a contract that retained Foley & Lardner as a consultant. The scope of the contract is redacted in the online city disclosure.

Records show Sims’ registration as a city lobbyist brought some scrutiny from the Chicago Board of Ethics. In a May 2020 letter to the board, Sims confirmed that he had been contacted by the board’s legal counsel a month earlier regarding potential concerns with his representation of various companies, as well as any exemptions that might apply to elected officials.

“As mentioned in our conversation, the heart of my representation of all four of the aforementioned clients has been to provide legal services by and on behalf of my law firm, and my registration for each entity demonstrates my desire to adhere to both the spirit and letter of the Chicago Ethics Ordinance,” Sims wrote on Foley & Lardner letterhead.

Sims’ letter pointed to an exemption that allows elected officials to provide legal services to people seeking “quasi-judicial, administrative or legislative action” before the city.

“While I have communicated with City of Chicago officials on behalf of two clients, Axon and L3 Technologies, Inc., all communications have been consistent with my legal representation of both entities” and “consistent with the exemption provided” under city ordinance, the letter stated.

By January 2021, Axon was no longer on Sims’ list of city lobbying clients. His registration documents in that year listed only one firm, Splunk Inc., a San Francisco-based software company.

Sims has listed no clients at all in his 2022 city lobbying forms.

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com