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Aldermen want "handcuffs" removed before new inspector general hired

Chicago's legislative inspector general, Faisal Khan, whose tenure ends this week, has often complained about constraints put on his office by the City Council. | Sun-Times file photo

The City Council should not hire a new inspector general until “handcuffs” slapped on the old one are removed, a pair of aldermen argued Wednesday.

Two days before Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan closes his office and puts his confidential files in storage, Aldermen Michele Smith (43rd) and Ameya Pawar (47th) declared plans to introduce an ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting tailor-made to remedy the funding and investigative problems that doomed Khan to failure.

It would put Khan’s successor on equal footing with Inspector General Joe Ferguson with a fixed percentage of the city budget that could not be altered by the mayor or the City Council.

The ordinance would also reinstate the power to investigate the campaign finances of Chicago aldermen — a power stripped from Khan in the run-up to the 2015 aldermanic election. And it would lift the investigative rules that tied Khan’s hands in an attempt to turn him into a political patsy: a ban on anonymous complaints; sign-off by the Board of Ethics before launching investigations; and a requirement that the subject of any investigation be tipped in advance.

“It makes no sense just to hire someone. We need to fix the structure of that office or give the power to Ferguson’s office. One or the other. We can’t have this game where we’re in-between. That’s how we ended up where we are,” Pawar said.

“The office is hamstrung by the ordinance. It can’t open any investigations without getting approval from the Board of Ethics. There aren’t anonymous complaints. There’s no guaranteed budget. It makes it impossible for a Legislative IG to do their job. Who’s going to take the job after watching what happened to Faisal during the first go-around? It became about personalities, rather than how the office investigates.”

After walloping Chicago taxpayers with a $588 million property tax increase and a first-ever garbage collection fee, the City Council has an obligation to “create the sharpest tool we can to address ethics,” Smith said.

“Taxpayers will not ultimately stand for lax oversight over the City Council. We can’t afford it, either. It’s too costly.”

A former federal prosecutor, Smith argued that it would be “more cost-effective” to disband the $354,000 Office of Legislative Inspector General, empower Ferguson to investigate aldermen and their employees and “have one, experienced office run the whole thing.”

She has an ordinance pending that would do just that. It mirrors the version introduced a year ago by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader and co-signed by 35 aldermen; however, that measure died when the new Council was sworn in.

But, Smith said, “As long as the offices have equivalent powers, either one is fine.”

A former Queens County prosecutor-turned New York City inspector general, Khan was hired four years ago by aldermen hell-bent on keeping Ferguson out of their hair.

He’s been at war with the City Council ever since.

Aldermen have accused Khan of over-spending, packing his staff with political operatives and “going fishing” with a blanket request for their employee timesheets dating back years. Aldermen further accused their handpicked sleuth of launching and leaking “penny ante” investigations that embarrassed them unfairly and violated their rights.

Through it all, Khan stood his ground. When his office ran out of money, Khan filed a now-dismissed lawsuit seeking the $1.7 million he claimed he needed to finish the job. When aldermen stripped him of the power to investigate their campaign finances, Khan declared the upcoming election a sham and the move an effort to force him out.

“I was told there would be no interference — that people would comply with the rules and regulations, but they haven’t. Aldermen refuse subpoenas. They refuse to provide us information and documents. And they refused to come in and be interviewed. … This has to change. And if it doesn’t, then shut this office down and transfer the power to the city inspector general,” Khan said then.

Earlier this week, Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) told the Chicago Sun-Times the City Council would forge ahead with an expedited search for Khan’s replacement because the votes are simply not there to empower Ferguson to investigate aldermen. Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) and Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) remain dead-set against the idea.

Austin and Burke are almost certain to be equally opposed to empowering Khan’s replacement to investigate anonymous complaints from aldermanic challengers eager to “drop a dime” on incumbents before the next election.

But, Pawar countered, “There are always going to be aldermanic opponents trying to dirty people up. But, if you have an office that is allowed to take anonymous complaints and you have a professional in that office, they’ll be able to know what’s what. Joe Ferguson is a professional. You don’t see him chasing after every on-line nut with a crazy complaint.”