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Former inspector general, interest group offer Lightfoot a blueprint for reform

Hoy McConnell, executive director of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), speaks about shortcomings in the system of city inspectors general during a news conference at City Hall on Thursday. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The network of inspectors general intended to insulate Chicago government agencies from corruption is more like “a slice of Swiss cheese.”

That’s the bottom line of an “open letter” to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot released Thursday by Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and former Inspector General David Hoffman.

Titled “When Chicago’s Ready for Reform, Here’s What It Could Do,” it’s a blueprint that urges Lightfoot to strengthen the power and independence of the five inspectors general overseeing the city and other agencies of local government.

“Each IG should have the power to investigate all complaints — even anonymous ones. Each should have full subpoena powers. They should also have responsibility to monitor large contracts, do background integrity reviews on senior hires [and] … be provided with a budget and management independence … [so they are] not at risk of political retaliation from officials they’re authorized to investigate,” BPI Executive Director Hoy McConnell told a City Hall news conference.

“We are under no illusions that simply bolstering the powers and independence of inspectors general and establishing a structure of collaboration will be the magic bullet that cures corruption in Chicago. But we are convinced that it’s an important and effective place to start.”

Inspectors general are supposed to serve as the “first line of defense” against corruption, waste and fraud. But McConnell said that system isn’t working because of gaping holes that need to be plugged.

For example, Inspector General Joe Ferguson was begrudgingly empowered to investigate aldermen — and even then, only for limited acts of misconduct and only if complaints are written and signed. Anonymous complaints were off-limits.

After a legal battle that went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, Ferguson cannot choose his own legal counsel to enforce subpoenas. He must rely on the corporation counsel, who also advises the city, the mayor and the aldermen he’s supposed to oversee.

The inspector general for Chicago Public Schools lacks full control over investigations and can be removed at any time without cause by a simple majority vote of the school board — appointed by the mayor.

The CTA doesn’t even have an inspector general. Inspectors general at the CHA, Chicago Park District and City Colleges have budgets set by the boards they’re supposed to oversee. IGs at the Park District and City Colleges lack subpoena power. And contractors at City Colleges have no obligation to report wrongdoing.

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“Chicago’s IG system looks … like a slice of Swiss cheese. It has lots of holes,” he said.

Lightfoot is already facing City Council resistance to her plan to issue an executive order ending aldermanic prerogative: the unwritten rule that gives a local alderman control over zoning and permitting in his or her ward.

She has also proposed term limits for committee chairmen, limits on outside jobs aldermen can hold and accused Ald. Edward Burke (14th), who is facing attempted extortion charges, of trying to organize the City Council against her; Lightfoot has threatened to expose aldermen who dare to conspire with him.

Hoffman, who served alongside Lightfoot in the U.S. attorney’s office, urged his friend and former colleague to be even bolder than that.

“Strong and independent inspectors general help make governments cleaner, more fair and more transparent. They protect our money from being wasted,” Hoffman said.

“They make it harder for those in power to use the levers of power for their own private interest rather than public interest. … They make it easier for honest hardworking employees to act ethically when improper pressures occur.”

Hoffman was the corruption-fighting inspector general who embarrassed and infuriated former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Eight years ago, he joined forces with then-mayoral challenger Rahm Emanuel to propose reforms designed to “change the culture” of corruption and cronyism at City Hall.

At least some of those plans didn’t happen. That’s because they clashed with the reality of a City Council that “ain’t ready for reform,” as former 43rd Ward Ald. Paddy Bauler famously put it.

Now, the City Council is bracing for more indictments in a corruption scandal that saw the second most powerful alderman wear a wire to help snare the most powerful member.

Lightfoot’s 74% landslide — she captured all 50 wards — delivered a mandate for change.

“She’s a friend. There’s no one else who I would have greater trust in to be in that chair, to take strong steps on these issues,” Hoffman said.

“It’s not just a question of her values and character and background and experience,” he added. “She has been bold on these issues … and she will be bold going forward.”

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