The state’s former public health director is under investigation by a state ethics agency for taking a job as a CEO at a medical non-profit overseen and funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike stepped down from her job in March as Director of IDPH. In April, she accepted an offer to be the head of Sinai Health System – a social safety-net hospital system in Chicago that primarily serves Black and Latino communities.
The Illinois Ethics Act requires department heads like Ezike to wait a year before accepting positions with companies that hold contracts overseen by their departments, or with companies their departments license or regulate. While in office, department heads also cannot engage in job negotiations with companies that lobby their agencies. The revolving door law also places a one-year ban on department heads taking compensation from entities regulated or licensed by the agency they oversaw.
The Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General opened an ethics investigation into Ezike amid inquiries by the Better Government Association that she violated this revolving door policy. Ezike has refused to comment. Ezike’s attorney Heather Wier Vaught told the Better Government Association that she believes her client has consulted with the appropriate people and that she has not violated the law.
Vaught was legal counsel for 11 years to former embattled Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan until 2018.
In records requests, Sinai Health received five grants from IDPH between March 16, 2021 until Ezike’s departure totaling more than $2.1 million. On April 11 — about a month after she left her state post, and three days before she accepted the Sinai job — Ezike sent an email to the Office of the Executive Inspector General to defend the legality of her rapid transition to the private sector. Ezike told OIEG Susan Haling in the email that her legal counsel advised her there was no impropriety that would impede her taking the new job at Sinai Health.
Sinai Health System includes three hospitals licensed by IDPH during the last year of Ezike’s state tenure.
Email communications obtained by the BGA through open records laws show Ezike contacted then-IDPH ethics officer Evan McGinley in February — a month before she resigned — to solicit guidance about her upcoming transition to the private sector. Days after Ezike’s February outreach to McGinley, records show, Governor Pritzker’s ethics officer Whitney Rosen responded to a separate communication from Ezike. Rosen’s email said Ezike could engage in “informational interviews” that discuss employment and the salary range of a position. Discussions beyond a salary range were prohibited, Rosen wrote.
On March 4, while Ezike was still IDPH Director, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that Ezike “has been offered a job as the next President and CEO of Sinai. … Sinai Chicago gave an offer to Ezike for the top role in February, according to a Crain’s source. It’s unclear if she has accepted the offer.” WBEZ also reported that day that “the Sinai board of directors has been authorized to negotiate an offer with Ezike.”
Vaught contends that her client did not improperly negotiate for the Sinai CEO position while she was in state office. In her April 11 email to Haling, Ezike said she did not negotiate for her new Sinai position until after she left IDPH.
Sinai paid its last CEO $1.2 million per year, according to its federal tax filings. Ezike made $178,00 a year as head of IDPH according to state records.
Potential violations of Illinois’ revolving door law and its one-year cooling off provision are investigated by the state Office of the Executive Inspector General, which refers alleged violations up to the Illinois Attorney General. The case is then brought before a 9-member Executive Ethics Commission for possible discipline.
A ruling on the investigation by the state has not been given a timeline.