City watchdog spells out probe targets’ rights – finally

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Inspector General Joe Ferguson | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson on Thursday issued a draft bill of rights for those questioned and accused by his office – then fell on his sword for taking two years to do it.

“The office has been in existence for 22 years. It has never promulgated rules and regs. I’m happy for the cattle prod Ald. Brookins applied two weeks ago to say, Where were they? You promised them,’” Ferguson said.

“I promised them last year, and I have no good reason for not having followed through immediately. . . . Like many departments, we have our struggles. Some things we get distracted from, and some things we don’t.”

Ferguson had no choice but to beg forgiveness. Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) had him on the ropes.

“I don’t understand why it has taken so long, yet, you have continued to conduct the investigations. People are not protected. They don’t know what their rights are. They don’t know what the rules are. Nor [do] their attorneys,” Hairston said. “I worry about due process. This is the department that [is supposed to] root out corruption and the bad guys.”

Two weeks ago, Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, introduced an ordinance establishing a late November deadline for the bill of rights. If Ferguson failed to meet that deadline, the City Council will “do it for him,” Brookins said then.

The 12-page document posted on the inspector general’s website makes Brookins’ ultimatum moot.

Among other things, the rules state that subjects of inspector general interviews “shall be given a reasonable amount of time to obtain representation or an attorney.” They also make it clear that, “at any time during the interview,” the person questioned “may stop the interview and request representation” and the questioning will be stopped for “a reasonable amount of time.”

If a union employee who is a subject chooses to proceed without a union representative or attorney present, “he or she shall be asked to sign a waiver indicating that fact.”

It’s also the inspector general’s policy to record subject interviews, either using audio or court reporting, with consent. If the subject won’t give that consent, “no adverse action shall be taken.”

Despite the flap over the belated Bill of Rights, Ferguson’s testimony before the City Council was fairly smooth. It was a marked contrast from last year, when aldermen were bent out of shape about the inspector general’s decision to wade into the budget process with a series of cost-cutting and revenue-raising suggestions.

Rules Committee Chairman Richard Mell (33rd) went so far as to praise Ferguson for focusing on the big stuff instead of penny-ante corruption.

“Your predecessor was more interested in grabbing the guy in front of his wife and kids and handcuffing him and putting him in a car because he stole a couple hours of time and didn’t see the Hired Truck program right in front of his face,” Mell said. “I’d much rather have you doing what you’re doing now.”

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