Ethics ordinance approved after being watered down to help mayoral allies

Eliminated from the ordinance was a requirement that alderpersons leave the room — or log out of a virtual meeting — whenever they have a declared conflict of interest that prohibits them from voting.

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Chicago City Hall, 121 N LaSalle St.

Chicago City Hall

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again — especially in the run-up to an election.

The Chicago City Council followed that mantra Wednesday by approving — without debate — a significant rewrite championed by Ethics Committee Chairperson Michele Smith (43rd). It would have been even stronger, if not for a series of changes demanded by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to benefit her City Council allies.

The Chicago Board of Ethics now is empowered to levy fines as high as $20,000 — quadruple the current maximum — “plus the entire amount of the ill-gotten gains.” 

Conflict-of-interest provisions — unchanged since 1987 — are expanded to prohibit city officials from taking any legislative or administrative action to benefit relatives and domestic partners.

Former alderpersons no longer can roam the floor at council meetings, lobbying their former colleagues.

Gone, however, is a requirement that alderpersons “stand up and leave the room” — or log out of a virtual meeting — whenever they have a declared conflict of interest that prohibits them from voting. 

The $1,500 limit on campaign contributions within an election cycle is extended to contractors with other agencies of local government.

But also gone is a proposal extending the $1,500 limit on campaign contributions within an election cycle to subcontractors. Also weakened was a proposal to prohibit the use of city property for political purposes.

Instead, “incidental” use of the city seal now is allowed in a photo or video so long as there is a disclaimer that it’s not an official city production. Alderpersons would be free to fundraise for charities, so long as they are not compensated for it. 

The Chicago City Council meeting on Wednesday, July 20, 2022 at City Hall.

The Chicago City Council at Wednesday’s meeting in City Hall.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The watered-down ordinance also strengthened due process provisions protecting the accused and weakens the Ethics Board’s ability to determine probable cause to believe the ethics ordinance has been violated — even in cases that do not require a “factual investigation” by the inspector general.

Steve Berlin, the Ethics Board’s longtime executive director, acknowledged “getting to good, tight ethics laws is, and has ever been, a tense, emotional process.”

But, he argued, the conflict-of-interest provisions at the heart of Wednesday’s rewrite represent a significant change. 

That’s because existing law simply prohibits city officials from “exercising contract management authority” with city contractors that are either owned by or employ relatives, he said.

“As only a relatively small percentage of the city’s workforce actually exercises contract management authority, this really is a significant expansion,” Berlin wrote in an email to the Sun-Times. 

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who worked with Smith on the current and prior ethics rewrites, countered that the ordinance passed Wednesday “could have been stronger” — and should have been, to “regain the public’s trust because really, we don’t have it.”

Earlier this week, Lightfoot categorically denied the changes she demanded had “weakened” the ordinance, as the Better Government Association has claimed.

“If … installing actual due process in the Board of Ethics process is something that the BGA is against, go figure. But for me, due process matters,” Lightfoot, a former BGA board member, had said.

“I want to make sure that the board is viewed with legitimacy and not as judge, jury, executioner before they even get the other facts from the person who is the target of the complaint.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presiding the Chicago City Council meeting on Wednesday, July 20, 2022.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presiding at Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Even so, the mayoral rewrite benefited at least two of her closest council allies.

The Board of Ethics found probable cause to believe Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) violated the city’s ethics ordinance by posting a picture of himself on Facebook dressed in firefighter’s gear in front of a city firetruck. The board, however, opted not to punish Sposato.

Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) was targeted by the board for using his city email account to send a newsletter urging his constituents to attend Lightfoot’s June 8 reelection launch at the Starlight Restaurant. 

Lightfoot owes her election to the corruption scandal still swirling around indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th). But the mayor’s decision to stall the ordinance until Smith agreed to water it down adds another chapter to Lightfoot’s mixed record on ethics issues.

Shortly after taking office, she pushed through a revamped ethics ordinance aimed at closing loopholes allegedly exploited by Burke. 

Those changes prohibited alderpersons and city employees from representing private clients in cases that “could affect the relative tax burden” on city residents.

The maximum fine for “high-level” ethics violations was increased from $2,000 to $5,000 while the $500 limit for “low-level” violations doubled to $1,000.

Then-Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who has since been forced out by Lightfoot, was empowered to enforce his own subpoenas, granted full auditing and investigatory oversight over the City Council, and authorized to launch his investigations five years after an offense occurs, instead of just two years after an alleged violation.

But, two years ago, 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.

More recently, the mayor has 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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