For years, Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s reports on the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and the death of David Koschman have been kept under wraps because city laws required confidentiality.
That’s about to change in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s continued quest to deliver on her signature campaign promise to root out corruption and “shine the light” on wrongdoing.
The City Council’s Ethics Committee on Wednesday approved a Lightfoot-championed ordinance that empowers Chicago’s corporation counsel to release Ferguson’s reports whenever they involve “sustained findings regarding conduct that either is associated with a death or is, or may be, a felony as defined in the Illinois Criminal Code and is of a compelling public interest.”
The ordinance widened the rift between the new mayor and the Fraternal Order of Police and may well have opened the door to a court challenge.
“The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) has articulated in several instances our strongly-held belief that the Inspector General’s office, particularly under Joe Ferguson, is often little more than a political witch hunt of our members, none more so than the manner by which his office generated criminal indictments of the three officers in connection with the Laquan McDonald shooting. Those officers, tried by special prosecutor Patricia Holmes, were acquitted,” the union said in a statement.
“That the Ethics Committee and the mayor would increase the frequency and magnitude by which cases against the police will be tried in the media, and not in a courtroom, is shocking and disappointing, particularly since the Chicago media itself is so corrupt and so engrained in the anti-police movement.”
Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), whose cousin Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko threw the punch that killed David Koschman, also expressed concern that the city may be “exposing ourselves to litigation” by releasing Ferguson’s full investigative reports.
Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) took the opposite view. He argued that the mayor’s ordinance does not go nearly far enough and that all of Ferguson’s reports involving “sustained” findings should be released — not simply those that involve deaths or possible felonies.
“Mayor Lightfoot said she wanted to bring in the light. This doesn’t bring in the light. This is a very narrow laser beam. … If you are truly trying to end this culture of corruption, then you need to put people on the spot,” Lopez said.
“Right now, they have the cover of, `We’ll be found guilty, but no one will know who we are unless somebody does some digging.’ If we have the public shaming as a deterrent, that definitely will help put some motivation in people to do the right thing when they think no one is paying attention.”
Ethics Committee Chairman Michele Smith (43rd) said she expects the ordinance to be used “rarely, but importantly” — and only in circumstances that are “in the highest public interest … like Laquan McDonald.”
“This ordinance strikes a very important balance between the public’s compelling need to know against the [need] to make sure that investigations can be done confidentially,” said Smith, a former federal prosecutor.
“Having confidentiality … improves the quality of investigations. It allows whistleblowers to come forward. … We have fought for a long time for the inspector general to consider even anonymous complaints.”
Smith denied whistleblowers may be reluctant to come forward for fear their cooperation may be disclosed at a later date.
“The person who is in charge of protecting the city from litigation is the person who makes the decision here” whether to release Ferguson’s reports, Smith said, referring to the corporation counsel.
“That puts the accountability and the decision … in the right place. That way, it is protected from political influence.”
After twice being cleared by the Chicago Police Department when his uncle, Richard M. Daley was mayor, Vanecko pleaded guilty on Jan. 31, 2014 to involuntary manslaughter for throwing a punch that killed Koschman in 2004.
That followed a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that led to the appointment of a special prosecutor.
Vanecko was given a 30-month sentence — 60 days in jail, 60 days on home confinement and the rest on probation — for the crime he committed when he was 29 years old.