CHICAGO — Aldermen facing tough re-election fights next month woke up Wednesday morning hoping for an opportunity to turn the page on the corruption scandal swirling around City Hall by introducing a raft of ethics reform proposals to burnish their good-government credentials.
Instead, they found themselves in the middle of another maelstrom, this one caused by a Sun-Times report that Ald. Danny Solis (25th) wore a wire for two years as part of the federal investigation into 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke, who has been charged with attempted extortion.
Burke, who found himself literally pushed aside and stripped of his starring role at the first City Council meeting since the charges were revealed, remained defiant.
“Number one: I have done nothing wrong,” Burke told The Daily Line Wednesday morning in a City Hall elevator. “No recording that Danny Solis could make would change that.”
Burke spent most of the meeting out of the spotlight — largely silent and without introducing his usual raft of proposals.
Solis, who did not return a phone message, has not been charged with or accused of wrongdoing.
As he left the chambers later that afternoon, Burke told a crush of reporters again that he would not drop his campaign for a 13th term representing the 14th Ward on the Southwest Side.
“I’m not only going to stay in the race. I’m going to win,” Burke said.
But some aldermen were angry at Solis — and worried about what the next shoe to drop would be. Others said nothing at all to the swarm of reporters lured to City Hall by the scent of fresh scandal.
“I was raised if you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about, but where I come from, if you wore a wire, someone’s gonna kick your ass,” Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) said.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said he was not “brought up” to wear a wire on a colleague.
“If I was caught doing something wrong, I’d just take my punishment, deal with the consequences . . . and keep my mouth shut,” Sawyer said.
Ald. George Cardenas (12th) — an ally of Solis — said he would have preferred that Solis end his aldermanic career “honorably.”
“Jeez, what is the world coming to?” Cardenas responded when asked about one alderman wearing a wire as part of an investigation of another alderman.
Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) called Solis’ action “disheartening.”
“I try to think we are a family down here and we all work together,” said Harris, who like Solis, is a close ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Typically, we respect each other. I’m a little uncomfortable about it.”
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) said she was near tears after she learned of Solis’ actions.
“You don’t do that. You just don’t,” Austin said.
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) said she was “shocked.”
“I don’t know what other people are thinking,” Sadlowski Garza said. “I have nothing to worry about.”
Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) noted that few people would volunteer to help federal officials investigate a friend or colleague.
“Most people don’t just generally call the FBI and say ‘Hey, how can I be an informant for you?’” Lopez said. “There’s usually something that pushes that, and only time will tell.”
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he also didn’t understand what prompted Solis to wear a wire as part of the Burke investigation.
“Anyone who violates the public trust needs to be held accountable,” Reilly said. “The best way to avoid having to wear a wire is to stay out of trouble.”
Reilly is one of five aldermen who are running for another term unopposed. But Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) faces five challengers — and acknowledged the news that Solis wore a wire is not good for her chances at a third term, since it reminds voters of Chicago aldermen’s long and sordid history of corruption.
“It is never too late for reform,” Smith said.
Smith introduced five measures Wednesday, including O2019-366, give Inspector General Joseph Ferguson oversight of City Council committees “with the authority to enforce subpoenas and conduct audits.”
The measures are “designed to increase transparency of our proceedings, but also to regulate our internal workings so that the public can have trust in what we do,” Smith said.
Mayoral candidate Lori Lightfoot, who helped prosecute one of the aldermen ensnared by the Silver Shovel investigation in the 1990s, said the widening investigation into Burke was “even more shocking” than the probe that led to the indictment of six aldermen.
“It again it underscores the fact that the system’s corrupt,” Lightfoot said. “We let people amass way too much power for way too long. They don’t work for the people anymore, they work for themselves.”
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) called for a “citywide conversation about how we ensure we end this system of corruption” that benefits only the rich and powerful.
Ramirez-Rosa said the focus should be on the fact that anyone who is involved in wrongdoing “betrayed the people of the city of Chicago.”
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said Solis had let down the 25th Ward and the entire Hispanic community.
“I think the community is disappointed that he put himself in that position,” said Villegas, the chairman of the City Council’s Latino Caucus.
Solis, who was not at Wednesday’s meeting, plans to resign, the Sun-Times reported. Emanuel could appoint a replacement to finish out Solis’ term before a new alderman takes office in May.
In a hastily-called City Hall news conference, Hilario Dominguez, one of five candidates running for 25th Ward alderman, said Solis should resign immediately.
Solis’ resignation would mean that current Zoning Committee Vice Chairman Ald. James Cappleman (46th) would take over, just as Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) became the head of the Finance Committee after Burke’s resignation.
However, a measure (R2019-46) introduced Wednesday to replace O’Connor as chairman of the powerful committee with Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), the chairman of the Progressive Caucus, was blocked by allies of the mayor and O’Connor.
Emanuel introduced his own package of reforms Wednesday (O2019-285) and told reporters that the Burke investigation should serve as a “wake up call to everybody that our work is not done.”
“People are tired of politics as usual,” Emanuel said.
The first part of that reform effort passed unanimously Wednesday, with aldermen voting to move the workers’ compensation program from the Finance Committee to the comptroller’s office with no debate.
Emanuel said he was open to the debate over whether the practice of giving aldermen the final say over proposals, projects and developments in their own wards — known as aldermanic prerogative — breeds corruption.
“What we have today is not working,” Emanuel said.
The practice should be “mended, not ended” — and care should be taken not to give a “nameless bureaucrat” power over people’s communities, Emanuel said.
Cappleman said that unwritten but pervasive rule is at the heart of questions about corruption in Chicago, which he said he has always opposed. Cappleman is running for a third term.
“There is a fine line between advocating and extorting,” Cappleman said. “Every alderman is faced with that.”
As Emanuel prepares to leave office in May, part of his legacy will be the more than 50 corporations he has lured to Chicago, fueling a boom Downtown.
In a news conference after the City Council meeting, Emanuel rejected any suggestion that Chicago’s reputation — tarnished once again by corruption allegations — would suffer lasting damage.
More than 30 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of political corruption since 1973. Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) faces a June trial on corruption charges.
Separately, Ald. Ricardo Muñoz (22nd) has been charged with domestic violence, and ordered to stay away from the city and county building where his wife works.
Those deciding where to locate their business want to know whether Chicago has the “political will” to make changes and “not accept the status quo,” Emanuel said.
“No company thinks any city is perfect,” Emanuel said, noting that there have been ethics scandals in “New York state, New York City and Alabama.”
Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said the news of the widening investigation should halt consideration of most other council action aside from reforms, including the “mega TIF deal” at Lincoln Yards.
“I think we need to take a careful look at everything that’s going through except for the reform ordinances that we’ve proposed, because it’s pretty clear that we’ve got serious problems across the board and they’re not going to be all fixed in this term, but a lot of things need to come to a halt,” Waguespack said.