Ethics Committee unanimously refuses to water down cross-lobbying ban

With federal investigators swarming, aldermen voted last year to prohibit themselves from lobbying state and local government and to prevent their counterparts at those levels from lobbying at City Hall. And that’s how it will stay.

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Chicago City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St.

Alderman will be prohibited from lobbying state and local government, under a ban approved Tuesday by the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Governmental Operations.

Sun-Times file

Fearful of appearing tone-deaf to the federal corruption scandal swirling around them, Chicago aldermen decided Tuesday not to water down the city’s ground-breaking ban on “cross-lobbying.”

By a 17-to-0 vote, the City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Governmental Operations shot down an amendment introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in April and recently resurrected by Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).

The amendment would have exempted an outside elected official from Chicago’s cross-lobbying ban if the public body that the elected official represents “has no pending or recurring legislative or contractual matters involving the city.”

Lightfoot said Tuesday’s resounding legislative defeat is more Ervin’s than it is hers.

The mayor said she proposed the amendment to eliminate “unintended consequences” of the cross-lobbying ban, but Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) and Michele Smith (43rd), the influential co-sponsors, were not willing to make those changes.

It was Ervin, chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, who decided to “take a chance ... fully understanding the difficult terrain,” she said.

“I’m not walking back that I supported it. ... I still think there are some unintended consequences. But this was something that was really driven by the City Council — not this administration,” she said.

Before Tuesday’s vote, O’Shea implored his colleagues to think about how corruption-weary voters might react to a rollback.

“I don’t think we should start bending rules for one person. In two months, do we bend them for four more people? And then we bend them for eight people? It’s a very slippery slope,” he said.

“The public does not trust the City Council. We need to try to earn that trust back. Changing this legislation … [would show] the City Council is blind to the corruption that is happening all around us.”

Smith, a former federal prosecutor, thanked her colleagues after the unanimous vote for reaffirming their commitment to “eliminate conflicts of interest.”

“We don’t legislate to make changes for one person,” Smith said.

The “one person” is Flossmoor Village Trustee Gyata Kimmons.

He was the one identified beneficiary of the now-defeated amendment.

Ervin acknowledged he knows Kimmons but emphatically denied he was “doing this as a favor to him.”

Rather, Ervin argued, the City Council had gone too far in its haste to inoculate itself from one of the biggest corruption scandals in the history of a city and state famous for it.

“I do not believe that some park district commissioner in Carbondale needs to fall into that same category” as a member of the Illinois General Assembly, Ervin said Tuesday.

“The adjustments that we made were a bit overboard and, in some sense, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, begged to differ.

Berlin called the ordinance approved by the City Council in December the “boldest in the country” — and for good reason.

“There is an inherent conflict between an elected official of any government lobbying other governments on behalf of private clients,” Berlin said.

“The danger of cross-lobbying is, you’re an elected official in front of another jurisdiction. At some point, my jurisdiction or, perhaps my private client, is going to have a matter that’s pending before your jurisdiction and vice versa. It doesn’t matter whether the subject matters are related. It’s just a matter that I can vote on your client’s matter, and you can vote on my client’s matter. That’s the inherent conflict or perceived conflict that the original ordinance is designed to prohibit.”

Still, Berlin acknowledged there is “some human cost” to the ordinance approved by the council in December.

It would require “certain elected officials” to “make a choice” between their “thriving lobbying practices” and their positions as elected officials.

Now that the ethics committee has defeated the amendment, Kimmons must choose: Resign as a Flossmoor village trustee or stop lobbying City Hall on behalf of his clout-heavy clients.

City records show he was paid $92,500 in lobbying fees during the first quarter of this year from a blue-ribbon list of clients that includes Walmart; Bird Rides, which makes electric scooters; Starbucks; the Chicago Association of Realtors; Wendella Sightseeing; McDonalds Corp.; Westfield Concession Management; and the United Center Joint-Venture.

During the second quarter, which included the stay-at-home shutdown triggered by the coronavirus, those same clients paid Kimmons $139,000 in fees to lobby the City Council, the mayor’s office and city departments.

Kimmons could not be reached for comment.

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