Search for Chicago’s next inspector general is down to two

One finalist is Deborah Witzburg, former deputy inspector general for public safety. But Witzburg was chosen by and worked closely with former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, with whom the mayor clashed repeatedly.

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Chicago City Hall

Chicago’s city government has been without a permanent inspector general since Joe Ferguson departed in October.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

The search for Chicago’s next inspector general is down to two finalists: former deputy IG for public safety Deborah Witzburg and a candidate from outside the city, sources said Wednesday.

The identity of the out-of-town candidate chosen by a five-member search committee was not known. Sources would only say it is not a household name and that Witzburg is the more experienced of the two.

Also weighing against the out-of-town candidate is how long it could take for an outsider to learn the ropes of Chicago politics and how hampered the new watchdog might be until they complete that crash course.

Over the years, mayoral appointees from outside Chicago have frequently been chewed up and spit out by the city’s unique brand of politics.

The overriding question is whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot is willing to appoint Witzburg even though she was chosen by and worked closely with former Inspector General Joe Ferguson, with whom the mayor clashed openly and repeatedly before he departed Oct. 15.

Also unknown is if Lightfoot’s determination to find a watchdog who, as she put it, “understands the importance of staying in their lane” rules out Ferguson’s former second-in-command.

Under Ferguson and Witzburg’s leadership, the public safety section did a series of high-profile audits and reports sharply critical of the Chicago Police Department and Lightfoot.

Those reports targeted everything from the error-filled gang database and the slow walk toward compliance with a federal court consent decree to a ShotSpotter contract that, Witzburg contended, rarely leads to investigatory stops or evidence of gun crimes and can change the way officers interact with areas they’re charged with patrolling.

Even more damning and embarrassing to the mayor was the inspector general’s blistering critique of CPD’s handling of civil unrest that devolved into two devastating rounds of looting after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Their report concluded CPD was “outflanked and unprepared” for problems it should have anticipated and that rank-and-file officers were “left to high-stakes improvisation” without adequate supervision or guidance.

Before ending his 12-year run as Chicago’s top watchdog, Ferguson also delivered a 163-page report on the botched police raid that humiliated social worker Anjanette Young, who was left handcuffed and naked for 40 minutes in a room full of male police officers. They had raided the wrong home by mistake.

Given that investigative history and how defensive Lightfoot can be when criticized, it’s at least an open question whether the mayor would choose a new inspector general with potential to embarrass her as much as Ferguson did.

Still, the mayor also could decide to shore up her progressive bonafides amid complaints that she has not been nearly as “transparent” as promised to be when she campaigned on a promise to “bring in the light” in the wake of the corruption scandal still swirling around indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

Witzburg wouldn’t comment on the search, or say if she has been interviewed by Lightfoot.

Asked for comment, the mayor’s office issued a statement:

“The Mayor values the significance and independence of the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in contributing to improving the City by rooting out fraud, waste, and abuse. As the Mayor has previously stated, we are working diligently to identify top candidates both locally and nationally for the inspector general role.”

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, said the clash between Ferguson and Lightfoot was predictable and unavoidable, even though they are former friends who worked together in the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“The inspector general has a really wide highway of work to do. Not just a lane. There’s a natural tension — always — between the inspector general and the people he [or she] investigates. And there’s supposed to be,” Smith said Wednesday.

Lightfoot’s increasingly strident criticism of Ferguson as a “pretty natural human reaction,” Smith said. “We’ve all been subject to scrutiny from the press or scrutiny of the inspector general and we don’t always think it’s fair. Well, that’s part of the job.”

Asked whether she was troubled by Lightfoot’s “stay in their lane” admonition, Smith said, “We’re all just trying to get the best inspector general we can get. I’m not gonna hang on every word every elected official says.”

Smith said the selection process is “designed to take time” and includes procedures for what to do if the mayor rejects the first or subsequent sets of finalists.

She still, however, plans to join forces with Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) on an ordinance that would “speed up” that process, acknowledging it “took too long” and needs “a few more touchpoints to let City Council know that things are happening.”

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