Last week, the Chicago Board of Ethics cited and fined five people as much as $25,000 each for lobbying Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aldermen without having first registered as lobbyists.
The fines followed a number of others levied by the board, all involving instances in which the mayor was caught using a private email account to engage with unregistered lobbyists discussing city business.
The findings would lead a reasonable person to believe that the elected officials involved would see the error of their ways and embrace fixing the problem.
Don’t stop believing.
Following what appears to be a Chicago standard, Mayor Emanuel, the one caught engaging in improper conversations despite being tasked with protecting taxpayer interests, decided that neither he nor his political insiders did anything wrong — instead, the law is wrong.
The mayor has publicly opined against the ethics board ruling, stating, “In the interest of reform, we have lost our perspective […] we cannot collapse a lobbyist and a citizen and that’s what’s happened.” He also proposed changing the law by sarcastically declaring that under the current standard, his young daughter could be deemed a lobbyist for dinnertime conversations.
Sadly, the mayor has not been alone in his criticism of oversight and the ethics law. City Inspector General Joe Ferguson, Ald. Sophia King (4th) and former alderman and former Metra Chairman Martin Oberman all have warned that an overly broad definition of “lobbyist” could subject regular citizens to unwitting ethics violations and hefty fines for simply talking to an elected official at the grocery store.
Much of this undeserved scolding stems from the ethic board’s findings that Alan King, a friend and donor to Emanuel — and husband of Ald. King — acted as an unregistered lobbyist in 2015 when he emailed Emanuel about removing a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ fence for the Chosen Few House Music Picnic, a for-profit music event of which King is a part owner.
Alan King and Emanuel did not run into each other at the supermarket, nor was this an impromptu conversation over dinner.
The ethics board rightly determined that because King was attempting to enlist Emanuel, in his official capacity as mayor, to advocate on his behalf, King was engaging in lobbying without being properly registered. The board fined King $2,500.
The disingenuous expression of appall from Emanuel and others is a sign of a core problem with Chicago government: the belief that it is acceptable for elected officials to bestow (or receive) special benefits and privileges simply because of an elected status.
Elected officials should not feel comfortable taking calls from friends who ask them to use their position to secure them benefits. It’s against the law.
Simultaneously criticizing oversight agencies such as the city ethics board as boogie men just waiting to catch them in unfair traps is merely shifting responsibility. Is a police officer to blame for a speeding ticket when somebody does, in fact, speed?
In a rare but refreshing rebuke, the ethics board stood up to the mayor. “Neither pizza stores nor mom-and-pop businesses have need to fear the Board of Ethics,” Chairman William Conlon said, and the board applies the rules “in a clear-eyed, common sense way.”
An elected official pushing to change an ethics rule because it is inconvenient would be problematic in any city, let alone in corruption-famous Chicago. Yet instead of trying to correct the clear error of their ways, Chicago’s elected officials have complained about “unfair” and “overzealous” ethics enforcement.
We can agree on one thing: Chicago’s ethics code does need revision, but to strengthen it, not to water it down.
Faisal Khan was Chicago’s first legislative inspector general.
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