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Aldermen approve Lightfoot ethics reforms

The City Council’s Ethics Committee embraced some, but not all, of the Chicago Board of Ethics’ recommendations.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), chairman of the City Council’s Ethics Committee, declares Chicago ready for reform after aldermen approve the ethics ordinance championed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), chairman of the City Council’s Ethics Committee, declares Chicago ready for reform after aldermen approve the ethics ordinance championed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

It’s never easy to persuade aldermen to approve ethics reform — even in the middle of a major corruption scandal.

It happened again Wednesday, even though Ald. Jason Ervin (28th ) wondered aloud, “What prevents the inspector general from going off the rails?”

Nearly two months after the Chicago Board of Ethics outlined its own more dramatic blueprint for change, the City Council’s Ethics Committee embraced some, but not all, of the board’s recommendations.

“Today’s . . . action demonstrates that . . . members of City Council are committed to good government and reform,” said Ethics Committee Chairman Michele Smith (43rd), a former federal prosecutor.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot rejected criticism that the changes she championed do not go far enough at a time when deposed Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) stands accused of using the city of Chicago as a “criminal enterprise” to squeeze businesses to hire his private law firm.

The mayor said it was important to “bring people along on the journey” and that she favors “doing things incrementally with an eye towards the end-game.”

“Expanding the jurisdiction of the inspector general to be able to audit City Council committees — that’s a big step forward and it’s a lot for people to digest,” she said.

“We’re defining conflicts of outside interest and jobs that people have. We’ve had a lot of debate about that issue in particular.”

Lightfoot noted that “a lot” of aldermen remain “very, very hesitant about reform,” even after the 14-count racketeering indictment against Burke and the federal raid on the South Side ward office of deposed Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th).

“We have to keep pushing people out of their comfort zone,” she said.

Lightfoot’s ordinance is clearly aimed at closing loopholes allegedly exploited by Burke:

  • Aldermen and city employees would be prohibited from representing private clients in cases “that could affect the relative tax burden” on city residents.
  • The maximum fine for “high-level” ethics violations would increase from the $2,000 recently levied against Burke to $5,000 — not the $20,000 recommended by the Board of Ethics. The $500 limit for “low-level” violations would double to $1,000.
  • Inspector Joe Ferguson would be empowered to enforce his own subpoenas, granted full auditing and investigatory oversight over the City Council and authorized to launch his investigations five years after an offense occurs, instead of just two years after an alleged violation.
  • And while the definition of lobbyists would be broadened to include nonprofits, registration fees would be waived and the effective date would be pushed back until January 1, and only those “paid or otherwise compensated” would be required to register.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel managed to push through ethics changes five times, but only after heavy resistance.

Three years ago, old-guard aldermen led by Burke and Austin kept the Burke-controlled workers’ compensation program walled off from scrutiny by Ferguson.

Program audits that Ferguson routinely conducts to determine whether taxpayer money is being wasted and whether programs can be run more efficiently were placed off-limits when it came to the City Council.

Now, Burke and Austin are in the federal crosshairs. Neither alderman is in any position to marshal opposition to Lightfoot’s plan.

Their absence was conspicuous Wednesday.

But their past opposition, along with disgraced former Zoning Committee Chairman-turned-FBI mole Danny Solis (25th), was duly noted by Marie Dillon, director of policy for the Better Government Association.

“One of the aldermen who supported that watered-down [2016] ordinance was quoted in the newspapers as saying, ‘We have a win here.’ That alderman was Danny Solis,” Dillon said.

“I don’t have to tell you how bad that vote looks in the rearview mirror. And you don’t have to tell me that you’re not all corrupt. We all know that. But the City Council’s longstanding refusal to subject itself to meaningful oversight has enabled the bad actors to give all of you and the city of Chicago a bad name. This is your chance to change that.”

Dillon argued that Lightfoot’s ordinance is “only a start” and that the BGA favors higher penalties for serious violations, like the $20,000 proposed by the Board of Ethics.

The Board of Ethics also proposed limiting campaign contributions by real estate developers to $1,500 per year per candidate for one full year after their proposals receive final approval from the city.

Yet another Ethics Board proposal would have closed a giant loophole that has allowed officers, directors, partners and other high-ranking employees of businesses to make individual contributions that exceed $1,500.

Chicago Board of Ethics Chairman William Conlon also wanted Lightfoot and the City Council to at least consider imposing the same, contribution limit on labor unions, which can now contribute $57,800 a year, according to state election law.