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Aldermen close another loophole in Chicago’s ethics ordinance

The latest change, triggered by a Chicago Sun-Times story, would prohibit city employees with “contract management authority” from deriving “any income, compensation or thing of value” from city contractors and sub-contractors or from anyone seeking to become city contractors or sub-contractors.

Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, prepares to leave City Hall on Thursday after convincing aldermen to approve, yet another round of ethics reforms.
Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, prepares to leave City Hall on Thursday after convincing aldermen to approve, yet another round of ethics reforms.
Fran Spielman/Chicago Sun-Times

How many times can Chicago’s ethics ordinance be strengthened in hopes of combating corruption that seems to continue unabated no matter how many times the law is changed?

Chicago aldermen seem determined to find out.

The City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight tried again Thursday, this time by closing a legal loophole that has allowed city employees with contract management oversight to moonlight for private contractors.

The ordinance was once again championed by Ethics Committee Chairman Michele Smith (43rd), a former federal prosecutor.

Smith was inspired by a Chicago Sun-Times story detailing how a now- retired, $125,000-a-year deputy aviation commissioner served as a paid representative for SafeSpeed LLC, a red light camera company doing business in the suburbs.

The Sun-Times reported that Bill Helm received a cut of the fines every time a motorist got a red-light camera ticket in suburban Matteson.

In a guilty plea last month, former State Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, admitted accepting more than $250,000 in bribes, including at least $70,000 from SafeSpeed to act as its “protector” in the Illinois Senate.

The SafeSpeed scandal prompted aldermen to take another look at the city’s ethics ordinance and close a legal loophole that has nothing to do with Helm, said Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics.

It would prohibit city employees with “contract management authority” from deriving “any income, compensation or thing of value” from city contractors and sub-contractors or from anyone seeking to become city contractors or sub-contractors.

The definition of “income, compensation or thing of value” would not include dividends from shares of common stock.

“If I’m exercising contract management authority under current law, there’s nothing that prohibits me from working on a totally unrelated contract with one of the subs because, generally speaking, I’m not dealing with the sub in my city job. I’m simply dealing with the prime,” Berlin said.

“The temptation is that I would favor the prime to keep my job with the sub — that it would affect my judgments as to how I exercise my contract management authority.”

Smith added, “We looked at the city ordinance and realized there was a gap there. We’re taking the opportunity to fill the gap and make clearer expectations.”

The last round of ethics reform was tailor made to end the days of “you-scratch-my-back, I’ll scratch your back” — at least when it comes to City Hall lobbying.

That ordinance prohibited Chicago aldermen from lobbying state and local government and prevented their counterparts at those other levels from doing the same at City Hall.

Smith and Aviation Committee Chairman Matt O’Shea (19th) joined forces on that earlier ordinance in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the burgeoning lobbying scandal swirling around utility giant Commonwealth Edison and video gaming interests pushing to legalize sweepstakes machines.

The changes advanced Thursday mark the third round of ethics reform since Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office and the fourth, if you count the executive order she signed just hours after taking office stripping aldermen of their unbridled control over licensing and permitting in their wards.

None of it seems to be doing any good. A burgeoning corruption scandal that includes lawmakers, lobbyists, contractors and ComEd has spread from Chicago and the south suburbs to Springfield.

“I can’t predict human behavior, but I can say this: We have a very reform-minded City Council and I’m very proud to serve with them,” Smith said.

“We certainly can create the expectations of what the citizens want from their legislators and city officials.”