Ethics Board not tough enough against lobbyists to satisfy IG

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Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson | Sun-Times

Chicago’s reinvigorated Board of Ethics has been flexing its muscle plenty against lobbyists who emailed Mayor Rahm Emanuel on the mayor’s private accounts and failed either to register or report their lobbying activities.

But the hefty fines are apparently not enough to satisfy Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

In a follow-up to a March, 2016 audit of Chicago’s lobbyist registration process, Ferguson concluded that the Board of Ethics has only “partially implemented corrective actions” pertaining to two of his major findings.

To identify “all active lobbyists” and verify the “veracity of information” in their disclosures, Ferguson had recommended that the board follow “best practices observed in other jurisdictions.”

They include “requiring both lobbyists and their employers to register with the city; requiring public officials to report having been lobbied; conducting routine audits of lobbyist disclosures and/or comparing lobbyist disclosures” to documents filed in other in “neighboring jurisdictions.”

The board disagreed with those recommendations and concluded that it is “not a best practice among state regulators to require officials or principals to report to the public.”

Ferguson had also recommended that the Board of Ethics “levy the full amount of fines allowable”against late filers

“beginning with the first day after the annual registration deadline.”

The Board of Ethics disagreed with Ferguson’s reading of the law and “chose not to work with the City Council to amend the Ethics Ordinance to initiate fines at midnight on Jan. 20,” the inspector general said.

In a letter to the mayor and aldermen attached to Tuesday’s follow-up, Ferguson pointed to 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.

“BOE’s recent spate of probable cause findings related to potential unregistered lobbying activity illustrates the need for more robust quality assurance practices governing lobbyists registration,” Ferguson wrote.

“We encourage the board to identify and, if necessary, recommend amendments to the ethics ordinance that would boost the likelihood of identifying lobbyists who have failed to file or have provided inaccurate disclosures.”

Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon said he appreciates Ferguson’s oversight, but “We will make our own decisions on what we think is appropriate compliance.”

“I think we’ve done quite a bit. But we’re always moving towards even doing better. We want to establish best practices and, in fact, be the best Board of Ethics you can find in the country,” Conlon said.

“We’re trying hard to do that and, at the same time, be very fair about it….I don’t think we’ll ever be doing enough. The harder we work, the more we should be challenged to do more. That’s how you get better.”

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

Earlier this year, the board slapped former Uber executive David Plouffe with a record $90,000 fine for emailing Emanuel without registering as a lobbyist.

More than a dozen more clout-heavy lobbyists now face hefty fines stemming from emails to the mayor using private accounts used to conduct public business.

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 pregame 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.

Last month, Conlon’s outspoken opposition helped kill a proposal that would have changed the definition of “city employees” to exclude independent contractors.

The City Council defeated the change on a 24-21 vote, just a day after the Rules Committee had approved it.

The failed ordinance would have been retroactive to Jan. 1. That effective date would have excused roughly 45 independent contractors employed by aldermen from filing ethics statements disclosing their clients, what business they or their spouses have with other units of local government or companies doing business with local government.

They also would have been excused from abiding by the ban on gifts valued at more than $250 and disclosing other sensitive information, including debts, capital gains and real estate holdings.

Conlon precipitated the about-face by condemning the proposed change as a step backward.

“It injects a very unhealthy secrecy into government for a privileged few,” Conlon said then.

“They’re getting paid, either in whole or at least in part, by taxpayer funds. I don’t understand why they should be excluded. If they have other jobs and represent other individuals doing business with the city, that ought to be brought to light.”

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