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Aldermen who moonlight as attorneys advised to steer clear of cases involving cops

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) asked the Chicago Board of Ethics to interpret the ethics ordinance championed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to rein in indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th). Brookins got his answer Friday, but it was not the one he wanted to hear.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), who practices criminal law, asked the Chicago Board of Ethics to interpret Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ethics ordinance and its impact on his criminal defense practice.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), who practices criminal law, asked the Chicago Board of Ethics to interpret Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ethics ordinance and its impact on his criminal defense practice.
Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago aldermen who practice criminal law on the side were advised Friday to steer clear of cases involving Chicago police officers.

The Chicago Board of Ethics issued an advisory opinion stemming from its interpretation of the ethics ordinance that Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed through the City Council in July to rein in indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

The ordinance states: “No official or employee may derive any income, compensation or other tangible benefit from providing opinion evidence as an expert against the interests of the city in any judicial or quasi-judicial proceeding before any administrative agency or court.”

Before a July 17 meeting of the City Council’s Ethics Committee, an alderman other than Burke asked Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, whether or not the clause “would limit his ability to practice criminal defense law in addition to his aldermanic duties.”

The advisory opinion did not identify the alderman. Other sources identified the City Council member in question as Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), former chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus.

Brookins, who practices criminal law, got his answer Friday, but it was not the one he wanted to hear.

The board concluded that aldermen owe “100 percent of their allegiance to the city and its taxpayers. ”

Representing clients suing the Chicago Police Department would place aldermen in an “untenable position,” creating a conflict that results “in the erosion of public confidence both in the legal profession and in government,” the board wrote.

“Aldermen cannot fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to the city if they represent clients in criminal cases where, for example, they may need to aggressively question the credibility or conduct of CPD personnel or attack the legitimacy of search warrants, arrests, or interrogations on behalf of private clients,” the opinion states.

“The board, therefore, determines that…aldermen who are licensed attorneys are prohibited….from personally representing or receiving or deriving compensation or anything else of value from the representation by others of persons in traffic or criminal cases in which there is participation by Chicago Police Department personnel as…arresting officers, executors of search warrants, investigators, witnesses or custodians of evidence.”

Law partners and associates are free to represent clients in criminal actions “even if CPD personnel were involved in the case.” But only if the alderman and the law firm abide by “an impermeable screening arrangement whereby the elected official does not participate in the case in any way or receive any income, compensation or other thing of value from the matter, including substitute payments,” the opinion states.

Brookins could not be reached for comment.

Aldermen have until Dec. 17 to clear up any conflicts. Burke has already removed himself as a partner from the law firm where he specialized in property tax appeals work at the center of the federal indictment against him. Burke’s daughter remains a partner at Klafter & Burke.

It’s not known whether the alderman is still receiving compensation from the law firm that bears his name. Nor is it known whether his decision to step away will satisfy the ethics ordinance.