Then-Uber Chief Adviser David Plouffe met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board last year. Five weeks ago, he was fined $90,000 for failing to register as a lobbyist in Chicago after sending an email to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Big shot mayors can’t allow just anybody to be an email pal

SHARE Big shot mayors can’t allow just anybody to be an email pal
SHARE Big shot mayors can’t allow just anybody to be an email pal

Follow @csteditorialsThe thing about being a big shot mayor is this: relationships change. Old pals start looking for favors. New pals come along with a hand out.

Even rich people, like guys who own baseball teams, want your personal email address and phone number.

Everybody wants something, and the bigger they are, the better their odds. That just how the world goes ’round.

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Exactly how this has played out for Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been revealed in some 2,700 pages of emails from his two personal accounts, first coughed up in December as part of a legal settlement with the Chicago Tribune and the Better Government Association.

For years, we have learned, the mayor conducted city business by personal email, which was not good. And based on what was in those emails, a skeptic might be inclined to believe that insider access sometimes paid off.

Since then, Emanuel has agreed to abide by a higher standard of openness, allowing a lawyer to review his personal emails every three months and pluck out for public scrutiny any and all emails that deal with mayoral business.

But if the mayor wants to go the extra mile, he also should drop a legal battle with the BGA over the release of more than 300 additional emails. And we share the BGA’s frustrations with the “selective use of redactions” — all the stuff blotted out — in the 2,700 emails already released.

Above all, we urge the city’s Board of Ethics to keep hammering the clout-heavy insiders who broke the rules when they reached out to the mayor by private email. The board believes many of these people should have registered as lobbyists and publicly reported their efforts to buttonhole the mayor, which is true. And the board believes the only way to discourage this sort of thing is to levy heavy fines, which is true.

Five weeks ago, the board slapped former Uber executive David Plouffe, one of Emanuel’s old pals from their days of working for Barack Obama, with a $90,000 fine for emailing the mayor about a business matter without registering as a lobbyist. This set off an alarm among well-heeled executives all over town who wondered if they could get in trouble now just for calling their friend Rahm, but too bad. If the point of a call or email is to work a little magic with the mayor, the public has a right to know.

As Cindi Canary, a government reform advocate who once headed a task force on ethics for the mayor, said in the Chicago Tribune this week, the public has a right to know the genesis of a decision and whether it was “in the public interest” or “hijacked by lobbyists.”

Since hitting Plouffe with that big fine, Fran Spielman of the Sun-Times reported Tuesday, the ethics board has issued “probable-cause letters” to five other lobbyists and likely will issue six more in the next month, for a total of 12.

William Conlon, chairman of the Ethics Board, told Spielman the onus for doing the right thing when currying favor with the mayor is on the person seeking the favor. Every time the mayor gets a call or email, Conlon said, he shouldn’t have to ask: “Are you a registered lobbyist?”

No, probably not. But could it hurt?

In all those thousands of pages of previously private emails, it’s important to stress, nobody has found a single case in which the mayor jumped to the tune of major executive or big campaign contributor. On the contrary, Emanuel often forwarded emails to his staff without comment or did not respond at all. But not always.

The Tribune on Tuesday cited several examples of when a successful effort to gain the city’s cooperation on a profitable business matter began with an email to the mayor.

An effort by the home rental listing company Airbnb to seek favorable regulations by the city, for example, began in November of 2015 with an emailed request from a tech industry giant, Marc Andreessen — a co-founder of Netscape — for a meeting. The mayor responded, “I will have my staff arrange.” Andreessen was on the board of Airbnb.

Eventually, as the Tribune reported, the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance that critics complained wasn’t nearly tough enough on home rental listing companies.

Influence-peddling is a game as old as Chicago, as old as human nature. It exacts a heavy price.

Back in the 1880s, for example, a Philadelphia man, Charles Tyson Yerkes, came to town and built Chicago’s first real public transit system, handing out bribes like candy to aldermen and state legislators. The transit line was a classic boondoggle of the robber baron era. It cost the people of Chicago and Illinois far more than it was worth and broke down constantly. But Yerkes got rich.

If only Yerkes had had email. And if only we could have read it.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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