Ethics Board flexes muscle against independent contractors

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Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) / Sun-Times

Chicago’s reinvigorated Board of Ethics is flexing its muscle again—this time by threatening hefty fines against “independent contractors” employed by aldermen who fail to file statements of financial interest.

South Side Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) was so incensed by the March 1 edict, she has introduced an ordinance that would change the definition of “city employee” and “City Council employee” to exclude independent contractors.

That would presumably excuse them from filing ethics statements by May 31, as the Board of Ethics mandated in a letter to dozens of independent contractors employed by aldermen.

“FAILURE TO FILE BY THEN IS A VIOLATION OF THE LAW. PENALTIES ARE SEVERE and include: (1) fines of $250-a-day; (2) the Board shall make violators’ names public; (3) employees are subject to employment sanctions, up to and including discharge, and officials are subject to removal from office. PLEASE DO NOT BE LATE,” the letter states.

Hairston accused the Board of Ethics of overstepping its authority.

“Independent contractors are not city employees. They don’t get pensions, days off for holidays or vacation time. They receive no city benefits. They don’t utilize any of the city’s resources. They set their own hours. They are separate business entities,” Hairston said Thursday.

“That’s well-established federal law, upheld most recently in the Uber case, where they again looked at it. Federal law supersedes city ordinance, as the city discovers over and over at a cost to taxpayers. There is no need for the city to be in violation of federal law.”

Hairston acknowledged that aldermen may inadvertently have caused the confusion when the ethics ordinance was rewritten in March, 2016.

That ordinance defined the terms “city employee” and “City Council employee” as “including an individual retained as an independent contractor by any of them.”

“That part is not correct. It’s an unintended consequence of something we enacted a year or two ago. And we didn’t realize we were violating federal law,” Hairston said.

Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon said the City Council has the “ability and prerogative to do what they think is appropriate.”

But he defended the March 1 letter that landed like a rock in the inboxes and mailboxes of independent contractors.

“There was an amendment to the ordinance in March, 2016 that redefined the term, ‘City Council employee,'” Conlon said.

“We’re not making them do anything. Employees of the alderman’s office simply have to comply with requirements of the ethics ordinance.”

In addition to their full-time and part-time employees, Chicago aldermen routinely hire independent contractors to advise them on media strategy and other matters.

Delmarie Cobb performs that function for Hairston and rookie Ald. David Moore (17th). In the past, Cobb has represented Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) and former Aldermen Terry Peterson and Leonard DeVille.

Cobb said she would rather give up the consulting fees she gets from aldermen than comply with the city’s ethics ordinance.

“I’m an independent contractor. I’m not gonna be treated like a city employee,” Cobb said.

“I have multiple clients. They don’t all need to be public. I have no reason to fill out a form that defines me as a city employee. I’m just not gonna make my clients public.”

Under Conlon’s leadership, the revamped Board of Ethics has been shedding its longtime image as a paper tiger.

Last month, the board slapped former Uber executive David Plouffe with a record $90,000 fine for emailing Mayor Rahm Emanuel on a private account the mayor used to conduct city business without registering as a lobbyist.

At least a dozen more clout-heavy lobbyists now face hefty fines in the continuing fallout from the massive information dump that was supposed to end Emanuel’s legal battle to keep 2,700 of his private emails concealed from public view.

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.

More recently, aldermen were warned they are prohibited from accepting the White Sox offer to attend Monday’s home opener against the Detroit Tigers and a pre-game reception with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

That’s because the total package is “worth more than $50 to a single recipient” and therefore violates the city’s gift ban.

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