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Investigator for City Council IG faces ethics questions

The chief investigator for the City Council’s embattled inspector general soon could find herself answering questions instead of just asking them.

Kelly Tarrant, the top aide to council I.G. Faisal Khan, is facing an investigation into whether her moonlighting as a political operative last year conflicted with her taxpayer-funded role as a corruption fighter.

OPINION

At issue are payments that aldermanic political committees reported making to a company she formed called Tarrant Chicago LLC.

Tarrant, a longtime campaign fundraiser and consultant, began working for Khan in January 2013, helping investigate complaints of unethical behavior by aldermen and their staff members.

Less than a year later, Tarrant said she took a 10-week break from Khan’s staff to work for a candidate running for an Illinois House seat from a West Side district.

The admission prompted some aldermen to accuse her of violating the ordinance that created Khan’s office, which says the inspector general and his employees can’t “actively participate in any campaign for political office.”

Khan’s office immediately defended Tarrant, saying she didn’t break the law because she was an independent contractor and not an employee.

City Hall Inspector General Joseph Ferguson — the inspector general for everybody at City Hall other than aldermen and their staffs — received a complaint against Tarrant on Aug. 7 and forwarded it to the city’s Board of Ethics on Sept. 22.

The ethics board decided it has “no authority” in the matter and bounced the complaint back to Ferguson.

The ethics board’s executive director, Steve Berlin, wrote on Oct. 23 that Tarrant “appears not be an ‘employee,’ ” echoing Khan.

“However, our staff and board believe the allegations in the complaint are troubling and without question implicate the integrity of the city’s ethics investigation apparati and structures and ought to be investigated” to determine if Tarrant violated city ordinance, Berlin wrote.

City Hall sources say it’s likely that the council will end the game of political hot potato by hiring outside lawyers to investigate.

The anonymous complaint against Tarrant pointed out that two aldermen, Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Scott Waguespack (32nd), paid Tarrant for political work. The payments from Waguespack apparently came before Tarrant started working for Khan, so they should not pose any issue.

But campaign-finance records show the Friends of Bob Fioretti committee made a total of $7,250 in payments to Tarrant Chicago LLC between Oct. 2, 2013, and Dec. 3, 2013 — during the time Tarrant says she was on her break from Khan’s office.

The campaign manager of Fioretti’s mayoral run said Tarrant was paid for doing fundraising data entry.

When I first reported on Tarrant’s temporary return to politics last year, she said she had spent her hiatus from Khan’s office helping Eddie Winters, a candidate for state representative. The campaign for Winters — whose losing primary bid enjoyed Fioretti’s support — reported making only a single payment of $250 to Tarrant’s company, on Dec. 6, 2013.

Regardless of whether Tarrant is technically a city employee, taking what she described as a “leave of absence” from her work with Khan to join a campaign creates a clear perception of a conflict of interest.

Tarrant is paid by the taxpayers to work for the council I.G., works out of Khan’s office and says in her online LinkedIn profile that her title is “chief investigator/chief of staff.”

It was bad enough that she worked in a state House race in which several aldermen supported different Democratic primary candidates. It’s worse still that she worked during her leave for one of the aldermen that the council I.G. is responsible for policing.

Neither Tarrant nor Khan returned calls Tuesday.

Khan’s initial defense of Tarrant doesn’t do much justice to his own case at a moment when he’s fighting for the office’s survival. He has convinced some good-government types that he’s on the side of the angels — even as no less an old-school power politician than Ald. Edward Burke (14th) delivered him from having his operation absorbed by Ferguson’s office.

The council obviously fears Ferguson much more than Khan and won’t make the true reform of giving Ferguson’s office authority to investigate them.

Since Khan doesn’t seem to understand the problem, the aldermen could at least amend the rules to make it explicit that anyone who works for him, in any capacity, can’t go on a sabbatical to work for political campaigns.