Ethics Chair proposes sweeping package of ethics reforms

The changes include ending the privilege that has allowed former Council members-turned-lobbyists to work the floor during City Council meetings and a big increase in potential fines.

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Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) attends a Chicago City Council meeting, where members used an electronic voting system for the first time, at City Hall, Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) on Friday proposed ways to toughen the City Council’s ethics rules.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The chairman of the City Council’s Ethics Committee on Friday unveiled a sweeping package of ethics reforms aimed at ending what she called the “I gotta guy at City Hall mentality.”

Among the proposed changes:

  • Ending the “relic” privilege that has allowed former Council members-turned-lobbyists — such as “Proco” Joe Moreno, LaTasha Thomas, Terry Gabinski and Joe Moore — to work the floor during City Council meetings.
  • Requiring alderpersons to “stand up and leave the room” whenever they have declared a conflict of interest that prohibits them from voting rather than continue to chair the meeting, as now-indicted former Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) so often did. The definition of a conflict would also be broadened to include permits, legislation and other “administrative” matters.
  • Empowering the Board of Ethics to levy fines as high as $20,000 — quadruple the current maximum — plus the “entire amount of the ill-gotten gains.”
  • Extending the $1,500 limit on campaign contributions within an election cycle to sub-contractors and applying that limit to other agencies of local government.

“The whole idea of ‘I got a guy at City Hall’ — we’re trying to end that,” said Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), the former federal prosecutor now chairing the City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight.

“It’s always possible that someone will try to avoid and abuse their power. That is part of the human condition from time immemorial. What we’re trying to do is change the expectations of standards to act as guardrails against abuse of power.”

Chicago’s ethics ordinance has been strengthened again and again over the years. It hasn’t stopped the parade of present and former alderpersons marching off to federal prison or being charged with corruption.

Confronted with his own wrongdoing, former Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) wore a wire to help the feds investigate Burke and former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

Former Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) was sentenced to 13 months behind bars for stealing nearly $38,000 from the Chicago Progressive Reform Caucus he chaired. Now-former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) is awaiting sentencing after being convicted in February of lying to regulators and filing false income tax returns.

The Council’s two most senior members — Burke and Carrie Austin (34th) — remain under indictment.

Better Government Association President and CEO David Greising said he’s not discouraged by that sordid history. He’s more determined than ever to keep plugging away.

“History tells us to be guarded about our optimism. But history also tells us not to give up. Ed Burke is indicted. Mike Madigan is indicted. We’ve seen some measure of progress at both the state and city levels. So we oughta keep trying,” Greising said.

Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon openly acknowledged there is “head-banging going on” — at the board, the inspector general’s office and at the U.S. attorney’s office where he once worked — about “why we continue to suffer this kind of epidemic of unfaithful conduct” by elected officials.

“We just recognize where we are, where we’ve been and keep trying to make the future different than the past. As difficult as that is,” Conlon said.

Conlon noted that, just two years ago, the maximum fine the board could levy was $2,000. If alderpersons embrace the changes, the maximum fines will soon be 10 times higher.

“People who are engaged in serious misconduct will suffer consequences before the Board of Ethics up to $20,000. And they will suffer consequences otherwise. And hopefully, that combination will be enough. I’m an optimist,” he said.

Two years ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot tried and failed to persuade the City Council to water down the city’s groundbreaking ban on “cross-lobbying.”

Fearful of appearing tone-deaf to the federal corruption scandal swirling around them, alderpersons refused the mayor’s request.

On Friday, Greising said it is “disappointing” that Lightfoot, who owes her landslide victory over County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to the Burke scandal, “hasn’t gotten more done” on ethics reform.

“She said hers was going to be the most transparent administration in city history. And the record on transparency has not been good. She said she was going to stamp out various aspects of this corrupt system with aldermanic privilege and other issues. And she has fallen short,” Greising said.

“Ideally, she’ll see this as an opportunity to redouble her efforts and have something to talk about if she seeks reelection.”

Last month, the mayor vowed to use the racketeering indictment of Madigan to renew her push to eliminate aldermanic prerogative over zoning despite resounding City Council opposition that includes her closest allies.

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