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Six more lobbyists face fines for using Emanuel’s private emails

David Plouffe, then Uber chief advisor, talks to a gathering at the opening of the ride-share company's office at 1401 North Avenue last year. He was with Uber General Manager Marco McCottry. File Photo. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Six more clout-heavy lobbyists face hefty fines in the continuing fallout from the massive information dump that ended Emanuel’s legal battle to keep 2,700 of his private emails concealed from public view.

One week after slapping former Uber executive David Plouffe with a record $90,000 fine for emailing Emanuel without registering as a lobbyist, the Chicago Board of Ethics issued “probable cause letters” to five more unregistered lobbyists and the companies they represent.

A sixth letter was issued to a registered lobbyist accused of failing to report a contact, as required by law.

“We’re taking it seriously — and we should. That’s the job we signed up to do for the people of Chicago. It isn’t me. It’s the entire board doing the right thing with the information we have,” said attorney William Conlon, chairman of a revamped Board of Ethics once known as a paper tiger.

“If it comes to our attention, we’re going to act on it. It affects the integrity of the process. Lobbying is a registered activity. It’s registered for a reason: So people can see what’s going on, what’s being communicated to government and who’s doing it.”

Conlon refused to identify the six lobbyists in question or the companies they represented.

He would only say that the maximum fines are “substantial” and that the names would be released after the accused have an opportunity to respond and exercise their right to an administrative hearing.

Other sources said all six individuals had lobbied Emanuel through the private email accounts the mayor used to conduct public business.

“I don’t think the mayor or anyone who gets a call from someone who turns out to be a lobbyist should say, ‘Are you a registered lobbyist?’ It’s the lobbyist’s responsibility,” Conlon said.

The $90,000 fine assessed against Plouffe, who managed former President Barack Obama’s campaign, was the highest ever assessed by the Chicago Board of Ethics.

It represented $1,000 for every one of the 90 days that Plouffe failed to register as a lobbyist after his November 2015 email sent to Emanuel’s personal account.

Plouffe no longer works for Uber, whose investors include the mayor’s brother, Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel.

But Plouffe did — as vice president of policy and strategy for Uber — in November 2015 when he used one of the mayor’s personal email accounts to lobby Emanuel on behalf of the ride-sharing giant.

At the time, the mayor had authorized Uber and Lyft to make pickups at O’Hare and Midway Airports and at McCormick Place that was once the exclusive purview of the struggling taxicab industry.

Plouffe was concerned about a fee tacked on by McPier and about the city requirement that Uber vehicles that make airport pickups include signs designating those vehicles as such.

“Assume both of us thought the airport issue was settled and we would never have to discuss again, but unfortunately two significant new hurdles were introduced,” he wrote to the mayor, who worked with Plouffe in the Obama White House during Emanuel’s days as chief of staff.

“Coming to you because of their severity that would prevent us from operating. We were all set to announce Monday we were beginning pickups.”

He added, “Sure this comes as much of a surprise to you as us, since there was an agreement in place.”

Emanuel replied, “Impossible for me to address from China.” He referred Plouffe to a pair of top aides.

Uber spokeswoman Molly Spaeth responded to the fine — and the $2,000 fine assessed against the company — by saying company officials “work hard to ensure our registrations are accurate and up to date. We regret that in this instance we made a mistake, and we will comply with the board’s assessment.”

In its ruling, the Board of Ethics noted that Plouffe and Uber “do not dispute the allegations in the board’s notice of probable cause or contest the fine” assessed against the company.

Instead, they argued that Plouffe’s fine “should be at most $1,000.” Plouffe and Uber argued the $90,000 fine “leads to an absurd result by having the board punish those, like him, to the same degree it would punish a person who actually had engaged in lobbying every day” during the period in question.

The Ethics Board rejected that argument.

“Under that interpretation, a person could engage in unregistered lobbying activity as many times as he or she wishes and simply avoid registration with the knowledge that, once he or she is discovered or ‘caught,’ if ever, there would be no fine. Or at most a $1,000 fine. There would be no deterrent effect as to unregistered lobbying at all,” the ruling states.

Emanuel responded to the ruling by saying of Plouffe, “He got fined and, my guess is, the Ethics Board did exactly what it was supposed to do.”

It wasn’t the first time the revamped Board of Ethics had drawn the line.

Last fall, the board’s strong stand against a longstanding perk prompted the Cubs to yank an offer they have made to aldermen for more than a decade — to purchase playoff and World Series tickets at face value that cost thousands of dollars to buy on the secondary market.

Plouffe currently serves as president of CZI Policy and Advocacy. He remains an Uber board member and serves on the board of the Obama Foundation.