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Lightfoot Should Crack Down On Corruption ‘Week One’ With Sweeping Ethics Reforms, Board Urges

“People who are only self-interested are going to be opposed to this, and we’ll see what they do.”

Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot addresses supporters on April 2, 2019.
Brittany Sowacke / Block Club Chicago
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CITY HALL — Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot should immediately tighten the city’s ethics ordinance, campaign finance regulations, City Council rules and expand the inspector general’s powers once she takes office, the chairman of the Chicago Board of Ethics urged.

“I’m sure there will be more changes coming as time moves on, we have an opportunity to get these in front of the mayor and in front of the City Council,” Board of Ethics Chairman William Conlon said. “I’m sorry that it’s not more unprecedented than it is, but I think it calls for more vigilance… more enforcement and more clarity. And I think it will come. I think the political will is there.”

These proposals should be a “week one” priority for Lightfoot and the new City Council, Conlon said.

“I don’t think anybody should be opposed to these, I can’t comprehend why they would be… to be legitimately opposed, not in their [own] self-interest,” Conlon said. “People who are only self-interested are going to be opposed to this, and we’ll see what they do.” 

Among the changes proposed by the Ethics Board to the City Council’s rules is an amendment to “Rule 14” that would require all aldermanic disclosures to be sent to the Board of Ethics and published on its website, Executive Director Steve Berlin said.

This would include instances where aldermen go “above and beyond” required disclosure rules to recuse themselves from any appearance of impropriety, Berlin said.

The board also proposed requiring aldermen that recuse themselves from matters to physically leave the hearing room or chamber during discussion of the matter and the vote. 

Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who has recused himself hundreds of times from City Council matters because of his separate stake as a property tax attorney at his firm, Klafter & Burke, has been criticized for frequently presiding over committee debate on matters he’d recuse himself from.

The City’s Ethics Ordinance requires aldermen to disclose to the Ethics Board — in writing — and abstain from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest, or matters involving persons from whom they have or expect to receive compensation in the last 12 months. 

Until recently, under Rule 14 of the City Council’s Rules of Procedures, aldermen can recuse themselves from a vote for any reason — and do not have to disclose why. Those disclosures are usually published separately in the council’s journal of proceedings. 

Burke has recused himself under Rule 14 a total of 464 times since 2008, while other aldermen have invoked the rule a total of 108 times, according to a joint investigation by WBEZ and the Better Government Association.

Short of an outright ban on outside employment, the proposal includes a ban on aldermen from representing clients in tax abatement, bankruptcy or environmental proceedings that affect city revenue, or the health, safety or welfare of Chicagoans. 

One proposal would expand conflict of interest sections to ensure aldermen and city officials do not influence city employees or officials on matters affecting their spouse or domestic partner.

Another would ban lobbying during City Council meetings, in response to lobbyists and former aldermen-turned-lobbyists like Latasha Thomas working the floor.

Chicago has among the lowest fines for ethics violations in the nation. Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco can fine “up to the greater of $5,000 per violation or three times the amount of financial benefit sought,” the Ethics Board says. New York can impose fines of up to $25,000 per violation. Only Philadelphia, whose maximum fine is $2,000 per violation, matches Chicago.

The board recommends limiting labor unions to the $1,500 per candidate/per calendar year political contribution limit. Unions spent heavily in this most recent municipal election, logging close to $10 million on various candidates. Service Employee International Union locals spent more than $4.5 million alone, according to a Daily Line analysis of spending from August 2018 through the end of March.

Berlin said he recognized it was a “sensitive issue” but noted that many other jurisdictions limit union spending. 

Other proposed changes would subject city subcontractors and their key officers and owners to the $1,500 per candidate/per calendar year political contribution limit. The Inspector General would also be empowered to audit those contracts. Changes also call for lengthening the window where the inspector general can investigate ethics ordinance complaints from two years to three years, and those probes can last for three years. 

City Council contractors could also be redefined to include all individuals paid by aldermen or City Council committee chairs or caucuses. Those contractors would be required to file annual Statements of Financial Interests. The Inspector General would be empowered to audit those contracts, under the Ethics Board proposals. 

Grassroots lobbying – attempts to influence aldermen through outside digital campaigns or robocalls that encourage people to contact their alderman about a specific issue – should also be regulated, the board recommended. 

While the issues are beyond the board’s “bailiwick,” Berlin said they also suggested the city consider public financing of campaigns and ranked choice voting – ”what are your ideas, public? If someone gives us an idea, we’ll run with it and see if there are other jurisdictions… are there other cities that have something similar? If we think it’s workable, then we’ll try our hand at drafting. We’re not the statute drafters,” the Law Department is.

The changes proposed by the Ethics Board would build upon ones passed earlier this month in the waning days of the Emanuel administration, which now require:

  • committee chairmen to give up their perk-filled perches if they recuse themselves from a vote before their committee more than three times per year and fail to resolve the conflict.
  • ban committee chairmen from presiding over matters they plan to recuse themselves from.
  • require aldermen who object to a permit to name “substantive reasons” to block it within 20 days.
  • block campaign contributions of more than $1,500 from parties with matters before City Council for six months before the matter’s consideration in addition to the current limit, which applies for six months after the matter’s consideration.
  • require aldermen to update their annual Statements of Financial Interest within 30 days of any changes “relating to outside employment, board service or business interests.”

In other action, the board fined home sharing company Airbnb $2,000 for violating the city’s ethics code regarding retaining and employing lobbyists who failed to register.

It fined former Ald. Will Burns (4th) $5,000 for violations in January and issued a probable cause finding against the company at the time. 

Burns acknowledged he lobbied city officials as aldermen considered changes to the city’s short term rental regulations in the spring of 2016, when city law banned him from seeking to influence official actions. That “revolving door” ban lasts one year.