Beer tickets brouhaha a valuable lesson for all

Staff Writer
Chillicothe Times-Bulletin

If there is a takeaway from the recent beer ticket ethics hubbub at the Illinois State Fair, it’s that all state employees must pay attention to Illinois’ ethics guidelines because someone may very well come after them — even if it’s over accepting beer tickets no one asked for in the first place.

Illinois State Fair Director Amy Bliefnick, who has had the job since 2005, was cited by Illinois’ Executive Ethics Commission for accepting $540 worth of free beer tickets from a beer vendor during the 2013 state fair.

Doing so violated the state’s gift ban that prohibits state employees from seeking or accepting gifts from a state vendor — something that is explained in the required yearly ethics training all state employees must undergo.

Bliefnick did not request or demand the tickets, and there was no exploitative kickback or shakedown — a too-regular occurrence in Illinois government that led to the state’s strict ethics guidelines in the first place.

The vendor, Combined Veterans Association of Illinois, offered 120 beer tickets to Bliefnick, something that is a decades-old practice. She distributed them to state employees, fair volunteers and fair patrons, according to a state ethics report. However, the fair’s contract with CVA expressly stated free beer tickets were not to be given to anyone.

“There is no evidence that she schemed to obtain the tickets,” the report read, noting that Bliefnick accepted free beer tickets every year since she became manager. “Rather, the unsolicited gift of beer tickets from the vendor to the fair director appears to be a long-standing, albeit unlawful practice.”

Dates cited in the report suggest Bliefnick may have been ensnared in an ethics investigation targeting the manager of the Du Quoin State Fair.

According to the report, John Rednour Jr., ex-director of the southern Illinois fair, arranged a meeting with representatives of Alongi’s, the chosen beer vendor for the 2012 fair, to discuss the beer contract. During the meeting Rednour told Guy and John Alongi that he wanted a free “roll or two” of beer tickets — the equivalent of 1,000 to 2,000 beer tickets. At $4 per ticket, the state considers that a gift with a value of $4,000 to $8,000.

Rednour, who left state employment in January after having been the fair manager for a decade, said he used the tickets to help promote the fair, not for personal gain, and that it was something previous managers had done.

“It’s a southern state fair, and a lot of people don’t come here,” Rednour told The State Journal-Register last month after the report was released. “When they’d come, I’d say, ‘Here, take four beer tickets and go over to the beer tent. There’s a nice band in there. Have a good time.’ Kind of the same way a race car promoter would give out cases of hats.”

Clearly, there is a difference between Rednour’s violation and Bliefnick’s, both in scope and intent. He specifically asked for a large number of free beer tickets; Bliefnick accepted significantly fewer tickets that were given to her without asking.

The ethics commission apparently felt so, too. Bliefnick was fined $1,000 and suspended without pay for two days.

Rednour, however, was fined $5,000 — the maximum fine the commission can impose — and he agreed not to seek employment with the state of Illinois for five years.

In the end, both directors showed lapses in judgment. As noted in the commission’s report, they should have had a clearer understanding of the state’s ethics rules and a desire to set a strong ethical example for other employees.

To her credit, Bliefnick admitted her mistake, said she learned a valuable lesson and said the practice no longer would continue.

If the commission was looking to make an example of someone, it certainly did so. Its report on the matter was timed to be released just days before the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, when interest in the fair is highest.

When all is said and done, ethical lapses involving state fair beer tickets seem like small potatoes compared to ones involving, for example, a U.S. Senate seat or a state pension fund. But it’s dangerous to try to move the line. And with so much corruption having taken place in Illinois through the years, everything is fair game.

—GateHouse News Service