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Board of Ethics proposes sweeping changes to city’s ethics ordinance

Restrictions on campaign contributions from ‘big-money players’ and limits on nepotism are among the ideas presented to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Chicago Board of Ethics Chairman William Conlon
Chicago Board of Ethics Chairman William Conlon said the proposed reforms are the tone that the mayor has set for addressing corruption and ethics in government.
Sun-Times Media

On the same day additional charges were filed in what could be the biggest corruption scandal in the City Council’s sordid history, the Board of Ethics on Thursday proposed sweeping reforms tailor-made to bring “lasting change to the culture of ethics in city government.”

Stiffer fines for ethics violations, dramatic restrictions on campaign contributions from labor unions, developers and other “big-money players” and strict limits on nepotism and secondary employment are just some of the ideas presented to Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon said the changes proposed Thursday were not motivated by the attempted extortion charge against now-deposed Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) that helped propel Lightfoot into the mayor’s office.

Still, the Burke scandal does provide a historic opportunity to change the culture of corruption that has sent 30 current or former aldermen to prison since the 1970’s.

“Lightfoot is really taking an aggressive posture where she is very publicly making this — correctly so — a big part of her program,” Conlon said.

“These are not tied to the scandal. ... It’s more a matter of the tone that the mayor has set for addressing corruption and ethics in government. That’s very healthy.”

Burke and his top political aide on Thursday were charged with racketeering and added as defendants to a pending bribery case involving a Lake Forest developer.

Earlier this month, the Board of Ethics slapped Burke with a $2,000 fine for presiding over a Finance Committee hearing on Jan. 12, 2018 when aldermen debated and approved a $5.5 million subsidy to Illinois’ largest Catholic health system, in spite of Presence Health’s anti-abortion policy.

Now, the board is recommending that the maximum fine for each ethics violation be raised to $20,000, which Conlon called the “top of the line” in other cities.

“It would be OK with me if they wanted to give us up to $100,000 in discretion,” Conlon said.

“Part of this will be not just the monetary imposition of a fine, but the reputational embarrassment that people should feel when they are called out for ethical violations.”

Developers were a major source of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vast campaign war chest. So were labor unions. Organized labor has also poured millions of dollars into aldermanic races in recent years.

Under the proposed regulations, real estate developers would be limited to $1,500-per-year-per candidate for one full year after their proposals receive city approval.

The Ethics Board also wants to close a loophole that has allowed officers, directors, partners and other high-ranking employees of businesses to make individual contributions above the $1,500 limit.

“It prevents avoidance of what, we think, is a clear campaign contribution limitation,” Conlon said.

“This is gonna be controversial in terms of some of the Supreme Court cases they have. But if I am a sole director of a company and my company gives $1,500 and I give another $1,500, that seems to me that the company is acting for me.”

The board is also proposing a $1,500-per-year-per-candidate limit on labor unions that for now are free to contribute $57,800-a-year, under state election law.

“Campaign contributions are very helpful in today’s world. You need them. But, there ought to be limitations that allow people other than large organizations to have a meaningful say, financially, in elections,” the chairman said.

Other proposed changes would:

  • Prohibit lobbing on the City Council floor.
  • Dramatically expand an anti-nepotism clause beyond contract management authority. Instead, city officials and employees also would be prohibited from reviewing permits and licenses or conducting inspections for firms that employ their relatives.
  • Bar aldermen from representing clients or receiving compensation by representing clients in “tax abatement, bankruptcy, environmental or other proceedings that impact city revenue or the health safety or welfare of Chicago residents.” (Burke’s law firm specializes in property tax appeals. He has recused himself from hundreds of City Council votes involving his law clients.)
  • Require aldermen who recuse themselves under Rule 14 to “physically leave the committee room while discussion and voting on the matter occurs.”
  • Send all aldermanic recusals to the Board of Ethics so they can be posted on the board’s website. Currently, if aldermanic recusals are made public at all, it’s in the City Council’s Journal of Proceedings, which is “not easily available,” the board said.
  • Empower Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate ethics complaints filed up to three years after the alleged violation occurs, instead of two years, and extend the deadline to complete those investigations from two years to three years.

“Joe Ferguson and his guys have got a lot of cases they’re working on. They get distracted to go into other cases,” Conlon said.

“Rather than put a shackle on legitimate investigations, we want to give Joe and his folks more time to do what they do: thoughtful, thorough investigations.”

  • Define “City Council contractor” to include individuals paid by aldermen, council caucuses or committee chairs to perform “government-related services” and require those people to file annual financial interest statements. The inspector general would be empowered to audit those contracts.

Two years ago, Conlon accused aldermen of injecting a “very unhealthy secrecy into government for a privileged few” by changing the definition of “city employees” to exclude independent contractors.