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City watchdog makes nice with Emanuel, stays on job

Chicago’s corruption-fighting Inspector General Joe Ferguson has decided to stay on — and possibly serve out his new, four-year term — after dramatically improving his, once-contentious relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, both sides said Wednesday.

“We found our way to a very professional, grounded relationship,” Ferguson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I have a much better sense that the mayor actually sees our office as making an important contribution to making city government better.”

Ferguson said the internal investigation that followed last year’s indictment of former City Comptroller Amer Ahmad helped foster the new and improved relationship with Emanuel.

“That actually required a lot of dialogue between our respective offices. That would have given the mayor’s office a lens into how we do what we do and the standards we think things should operate by,” Ferguson said.

“I have a much better sense [of how Emanuel operates] from that and from other things we’ve done, like publicly-announced prosecutions. There have been audits where the mayor’s office has responded very, very pro-actively to our findings. We each understand each other.”

A top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous, said Ferguson’s decision to stay was finalized during a “good conversation” in the mayor’s office last week.

“Both felt there was a lot of work to continue to do together, even after reaching Shakman compliance,” the Emanuel aide said.

“The mayor asked the IG to continue partnering on a number of issues and they agreed. There was no deadline set. They have developed a productive relationship.”

Cindi Canary, chairman of the mayor’s Ethics Reform Task Force, said she’s not surprised that two “strong-willed individuals” found a way to rise above the “natural tension” that exists between a mayor and his inspector general.

“The Mayor realized the political consequences of replacing Joe. Since David Hoffman, Chicago has had a strong IG with a very public face. While a truly independent IG can create tension with an administration, it is now enshrined as a fact of life at City Hall and I don’t think that the public would accept backtracking,” Canary wrote in an e-mail to the Sun-Times.

“In terms of who deserves credit, probably both Ferguson and the Mayor should share it for acting like grown-ups, understanding their respective roles and accepting the inherent tension.”

Nine months ago, Emanuel reappointed Ferguson to another four-year term with the unwritten understanding that the inspector general would step down after helping the city get out from under the Shakman decree and the costly constraints of a federal hiring monitor.

Last month, the Shakman hurdle was nearly cleared.

After a hiring scandal that has cost taxpayers $22.9 million over the last decade, attorney Michael Shakman and federal hiring monitor Noelle Brennan filed a joint motion in federal court arguing that the city had reached the “substantial compliance” needed to be released from federal oversight.

If a federal judge agrees, the long-running case that began in 1969 will be dismissed on June 16 and so will Brennan. That will leave the job of policing city hiring, firing and promotions to the inspector general.

For Ferguson, that was supposed to draw the curtain on his City Hall tenure.

But tensions between the two, 54-year-old men has eased so much, Ferguson has decided to stay on indefinitely.

Before the reappointment, Ferguson was forced to wait 28 months for his first face-to-face meeting with the mayor. Emanuel even went so far as to demand that Ferguson re-apply for the $161,856-a-year job he’s held since 2009.

Now, the two men meet quarterly. Ferguson no longer feels frozen out or thwarted by the mayor’s office and seems to have softened his criticism of Emanuel in response to the thaw.

Emanuel is no longer blind-sided by the inspector general’s audits and findings. He’s less inclined to be defensive and more inclined to embrace those recommendations.

Two months after the reappointment, the mayor pushed through an ethics reform that requires Chicago contractors to report corruption or other wrongdoing by their employees or risk losing their city business.

“I am thankful to the inspector general for this recommendation,” Emanuel said at the time.

After a joint investigation by Ferguson, the FBI and IRS, Emanuel tightened the reins on cash handling to eliminate an embarrassing lack of oversight that allegedly allowed a low-level clerk in to embezzle nearly $750,000 in permit fees over a six-year period.

When Ferguson, the Better Government Association and WBBM-TV concluded that Chicago needs more advanced life support ambulances to meet response time standards, Emanuel negotiated a new firefighters contract that calls for the city to convert all 15 basic-life-support ambulances into advanced life support and hire 50-to-200 more paramedics to staff them.

The mayor also redoubled the city’s efforts to fill potholes, repave streets and allow Chicagoans to chart the progress of city crews after Ferguson accused the Chicago Department of Transportation of failing to meet its self-imposed deadlines for pothole and streetlight repairs and exaggerating its performance by failing to report 53 percent of all requests for those pivotal city services.

Tensions between Emanuel and Ferguson were once so high, you cut almost cut them with a knife.

It stemmed from Emanuel’s efforts to block Ferguson’s pursuit of unbridled subpoena power — all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court — and Ferguson’s attempts to audit city programs to verify the mayor’s bold savings claims and hold Emanuel to honor campaign promises to expand the inspector general’s investigative powers to the City Council, the Public Building Commission and the Chicago Park District.

Ferguson also hounded the mayor to do something he has now done to get out from under Shakman: punish city employees who testified under grants of immunity at federal trials that culminated in the conviction of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s former patronage chief and Streets and Sanitation commissioner on charges of rigging city hiring and promotions to benefit the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO) and other pro-Daley armies of political workers.

Now, the fiercely-independent inspector general whom Emanuel inherited is staying put to make certain that hiring and promotions are on the up — and up — or blow the whistle when they’re not.

He’ll be around to recommend disciplinary action against six current Chicago Police officers involved in botched police investigations into the death of David Koschman, who died 11 days after being punched by Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko, a Daley nephew, during a Division street altercation in 2004.

Canary said it will be “interesting to see how the city copes” in the post-Shakman era.

“My sense was that there was a lot of hiding behind the decree — meaning that it was thrown up to block all kinds of things that didn’t have anything to do with Shakman,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Ahmad plead guilty to conspiracy and bribery for his role in a kickback and money-laundering scheme that occurred when he served as Ohio’s deputy state treasurer. But before he could be sentenced to as long as 15 years in federal prison, Ahmad skipped bail, fled the country and was detained in Pakistan after trying to enter the country with, what authorities there claimed was a fake passport and a forged visa.