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Aldermen defend attempt to clip Inspector General's wings

Chicago aldermen came out of the shadows Monday about their campaign to clip the wings of Inspector General Joe Ferguson even before he’s cleared for takeoff.

Two days before a showdown vote on a long-stalled ordinance empowering Ferguson to investigate aldermen and their employees, president pro tempore Marge Laurino (39th) explained why some aldermen want to make program audits off limits and confine Ferguson to investigating potential violations of the law.

Laurino said aldermen are rightfully concerned that Ferguson may seek to embarrass them by auditing the $66 million program that gives each alderman $1.32 million each year to spend on a menu of neighborhood improvements.

The inspector general has already audited residential street resurfacing carried out through the aldermanic menu program as well as the city’s protracted process of issuing loading zone and disabled parking signs.

“Myself and my colleagues had some issues with whether the inspector general would be looking at our menu,” Laurino said.

“The menu aspect of it is important to all of us because we have a better sense of what our community needs as represenstatives of our individual wards.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) noted that information on how each aldermen spends menu money is available, simply by filing a Freedom of Information request. There’s no reason for Ferguson to stick his nose into the treasured program, Beale said.

“You don’t need an inspector general to do that. It would be a waste of time. There’s nothing there,” Beale said.

As for the effort to make audits of City Council programs off limits, Beale said it’s a backlash from the tumultuous term of Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, who left in November.

“We had a rogue [legislative] inspector general. We had someone who was acting outside the scope of their job. That’s where a lot of the caution is coming in,” Beale said.

“When you have someone who does that, it does cause us to take pause on moving forward. We want to make sure we get it right this time. That way, if a person does go outside the scope, we have checks-and-balances. It has nothing to do with people being afraid of someone investigating.”

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) refused to answer questions about the behind-the-scenes effort to cut off half of the oversight Ferguson exercises over the rest of city government.

In 2012, Burke clashed with Ferguson over access to workers’ compensation claims administered by the Finance Committee.

After failing in his attempts to block Ferguson from investigating aldermen, sources said Burke would at least like to wall off the workers’ compensation program from another one of Ferguson’s audits.

Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) said he believes aldermen are making a mistake by trying to limit Ferguson’s investigative powers.

“We’re under a lot of scrutiny right now in the City Council. That just sends a bad message to the public that we’ve got something to hide — and we don’t,” Solis said.

“In these times, we’ve got to show the public that we’re willing to be under the same scrutiny as anybody else in the city.”

Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association, has urged aldermen to pass an ordinance that allows Ferguson to look at whatever and whomever he wishes.

“Without the audit function, much of the activity of the City Council will remain in the dark. The audit function is critical to seeing how aldermen, their committees and staffs operate. Ferguson has used the tool effectively with city government and it can be extremely valuable in holding aldermen accountable,” Shaw told the Chicago Sun-Times last week.

“A lot of aldermen don’t want a watchdog with a loud bark and sharp teeth like Joe Ferguson anywhere near them. A lot of aldermen want to create the fascade of oversight without the reality. That’s what they did with Faisal Khan, who was hogtied and hamstrung from day one. While this would be an improvement from Khan’s lap-dog status, it’s not what taxpayers need and deserve after watching a legislative body that’s seen more than 30 of its member sent off to jail in recent decades.”

Four years ago, Ferguson went public with a long-simmering jurisdictional dispute with Burke: Burke’s decision to deny the inspector general access to databases related to the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program for civilian employees.

At the time, Burke’s staff was refusing to release that information on grounds that “duty disability” is governed by state law, not city ordinance; Ferguson’s investigative powers are limited to misconduct; and Finance Committee staffers fall under the jurisdiction of the now-departed Legislative Inspector General.

Ferguson countered that he routinely conducts audits to review city programs, identify waste and inefficiency and recommend ways to prevent it. He referred to a Chicago Sun-Times stories that identified waste, abuse and mismanagement in the $45 million a year disability program for police officers and firefighters.

“Blocking (my office’s) access is especially egregious in this case, as recent press reports have detailed anecdotal evidence of a city program very much in need of outside review, hopefully leading to improvements and savings to taxpayers,” Ferguson wrote. “The best way to determine whether there is waste, fraud or abuse in this city-funded program administered by the city for the benefit of city workers … is to subject the program to a thorough review.”

Instead of empowering Ferguson, Burke and Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) want to hire a replacement for Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, whose tumultuous term ended in November.