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Lightfoot follows Burke indictment with another round of ethics reforms

The mayor is embracing some recommendations of the Chicago Board of Ethics, but ignoring or softening others.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday unveiled a slew of ethics proposals, saying: “There’s no mistake that this is designed to address the problem of Ed Burke trying to monetize his position as an alderman and as a chairman.”
Ashlee Rezin/ Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday added another round to the seemingly endless parade of ethics reforms tailor-made to change the culture of City Hall corruption laid bare by the racketeering indictment against Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

Lightfoot’s plan includes:

  • Allowing the city inspector general to audit City Council committees.
  • Banning some — but not all — outside employment for aldermen.
  • Higher fines for ethics violations.

“There’s no mistake that this is designed to address the problem of Ed Burke trying to monetize his position as an alderman and as a chairman,” said Lightfoot, who has repeatedly demanded Burke’s resignation from the City Council.

“This is a first of many changes that we’ll ultimately make over the course of the four years to make sure that we are having a network of ethics and compliance that drive home the fact that people who are elected officials and appointed officials have to put the peoples’ work first.”

One week after the Chicago Board of Ethics outlined its own blueprint for change, Lightfoot embraced some recommendations, while ignoring or softening others.

If the City Council OKs the mayor’s plan, aldermen would be banned from “certain outside employment that poses a potential liability or a conflict of interest” with city business.

The maximum fine for “high-level” ethics violations would increase to $5,000 — up from the $2,000 levied recently against Burke. That’s lower than the $20,000 recommended by the Board of Ethics. The top fine for “low-level” violations would double to $1,000.

Inspector Joe Ferguson would be empowered to audit City Council committees.

“There was a big fight probably two years ago where there was a push by some members of the Progressive Caucus to expand the IG’s audit authority to cover City Council committees. That effort was thwarted. We’re essentially picking that back up and saying, `No. The IG absolutely should have the ability to audit City Council committees,’” Lightfoot said.

And the definition of lobbyists would be broadened to include non-profits. Their lobbyists would be required to register and provide quarterly reports, but registration fees would be waived.

The mayor’s plan doesn’t mention the ethics board’s controversial proposal to dry up campaign contributions to the mayor, city clerk, city treasurer and aldermen from real estate developers, corporate executives and labor unions.

That doesn’t mean it’s dead.

“I don’t like doing things piecemeal. I want to make sure that we are looking at things comprehensively. And there’s a lot of things that we need to address in the way that our elections function and also campaign finance. I want to have that conversation and engage in a dialogue with relevant stakeholders. [But] ... the proposals from the Ethics Board are just one piece of the puzzle,” the mayor said.

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) has said banning outside income and limiting campaign contributions — not ending aldermanic prerogative — is the way to stop the cycle of corruption that has sent 30 present or former Chicago aldermen to prison since 1970.

Ald. Ed Burke leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on June 4.
Ald. Ed Burke leaves the Dirksen Federal Courthouse after his arraignment Tuesday on racketeering charges.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Though Burke is accused of using the city of Chicago as a criminal “enterprise” to squeeze businesses to hire his private law firm, Lopez has argued the “true nexus for where a lot of this corruption [begins and] ends is the outside employment by aldermen.”

Lightfoot strongly disagreed. She argued that a ban would “potentially pose a hardship on aldermen,” including new Zoning Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather Restaurants.

“The issue for the city is, what is that employment? What kinds of responsibilities are they taking on?” she said.

“They can’t do work that puts them directly in conflict with the city. It should be basic. They should know that. But clearly, that’s not the case. So we’re making this specific change to drive that point home as a matter of law. And we had some examples in the ordinance, like obviously property tax work, bankruptcy work, other litigation where we may decide that we’re gonna weigh in as an adversary.”

The latest round of changes fall short of the nine-point plan Lightfoot unveiled during the campaign to restore what she called the “deep-seated mistrust” many Chicagoans have in city government.

That plan, embraced by former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), included limiting the mayor and Council committee chairmen to two terms.

But Lightfoot said Wednesday she recently had a discussion about term limits with new Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd).

“This is something that’ll be part of a longer look at other things we need to change. We’ll also [propose] term limits for mayor. I meant what I said during the course of the campaign: Two terms is more than sufficient,” she said.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed through five rounds of ethics reforms in an attempt to turn the page from the Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals that cast a giant shadow over former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.

Still, the City Council is bracing for what could be the biggest scandal in its sordid history.

“I feel more optimistic this time around,” Lightfoot said Wednesday.

“The things we’re talking about here — giving the IG oversight over City Council committees, really limiting outside income that is in conflict with the city’s business — these are big steps.”