City watchdog accuses Emanuel administration of stymying probes

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The City Council puts Inspector General Joe Ferguson on the hot seat Thursday, October 20, 2011. | Jean Lachat~Chicago Sun-Times.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and some of his handpicked department heads were accused Monday of tying the hands of Chicago’s corruption-fighting inspector general.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson once again used his quarterly report to complain about impediments to his job. Only this time, he offered new evidence involving his efforts to clean up the city’s rigged hiring system.

“In an increasing number of investigations [some that concern Shakman], both the Law and other city departments have been shielding documents and communications from the IGO based on a claim of attorney-client privilege,” Ferguson wrote.

“This office needs complete and unfiltered information. Without it, the IGO’s ability to thwart corruption, waste and mismanagement is impaired and the city itself is worse off.”

The inspector general noted that withholding documents runs counter to both city ordinance and an agreed order in the long-running Shakman case. Without “unfettered access,” Emanuel may be hardpressed to “credibly claim” that he deserves to get out from under the Shakman decree and the constraints of a federal monitor, Ferguson wrote.

The inspector general reiterated his long-standing complaint that Emanuel has adopted “wholesale” the legal position that former Mayor Richard M. Daley staked out in a dispute over access to information and documents in the hands of the city’s Law Department.

The controversy stems from an unprecedented lawsuit filed by the inspector general demanding that the Law Department turn over documents vital to the investigation of how former top Daley aide Charles Bowen was awarded a $100,000 sole source contract with the Chicago Police Department.

But, Ferguson also offered new examples of roadblocks thrown in his investigative path.

Despite Ferguson’s recommendation for a 20-day suspension, Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff decided to issue an oral reprimand to a battalion chief who, the inspector general claims, “recklessly exposed the city to liability over a period of two years” by allowing his adult son to sleep at the firehouse and travel with him in an official city vehicle responding to emergency calls.”

And the Department of Streets and Sanitation ordered “pre-emptive discipline”– a one-day suspension never served – against a ward superintendent accused of taking down campaign signs and storing the incumbent alderman’s signs at a city facility to be returned later while discarding opponents signs. The preemptive strike wasted “significant amount of [Ferguson’s] scarce” investigative resources, the inspector general wrote.

Deputy mayoral press secretary Jennifer Hoyle countered that the Emanuel administration is “committed to the highest ethical standards in government” – and that Ferguson’s report makes that clear.

“The report notes numerous instances where the city reported misconduct to the inspector general’s office voluntarily, worked closely with the IG and followed the IG’s disciplinary recommendations,” Hoyle said.

“The report also notes favorably that the city has filed three hiring plans in recent months – for police, fire and a revised plan for senior managers – and that the IG’s office was spared the budget cuts that other departments faced and has substantial resources to fill 16 vacancies.”

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford insisted that the oral reprimand for the battalion chief was justified by the policy of progressive discipline outlined in the firefighters union contract.

Other new cases of wrongdoing outlined in the inspector general’s quarterly report include:

†A foreman of sewer cleaners who resigned to avoid being fired after being videotaped selling counterfeit movies at a Water Management facility.

† A Public Health nurse who resigned to avoid being fired after falsely claiming that she made 17 home health visits over a three-day period when she actually made only three. The nurse was accused of shopping at Target or staying at her mother’s home on city time.

† A tree trimmer slapped with a 20-day suspension for allegedly taking computerized ethics training for three Streets and San co-workers.

† A company that could be permanently barred from doing business with the city – and forced to reimburse Chicago taxpayers – for using a minority sub-contractor as a “pass-through” to falsely claim compliance with minority set-aside requirements on its contract to soundproof homes near O’Hare and Midway Airports.

† A building inspector who resigned to avoid being fired for allegedly giving “preferential treatment” to a building owner by “initiating and coordinating contact between” the owner and an expediter “in order to remediate building code violations.”

Emanuel campaigned on a promise to give Ferguson power to investigate the Chicago Park District and Public Building Commission and more resources, including a guaranteed, one-tenth of one percent of the city’s annual budget.

The promise was pivotal to winning the endorsement of former Inspector General David Hoffman, whose investigations were, at times, undermined by Daley.

For all his haste to race through his transition report, Emanuel has failed to deliver on all of those promises.

Under questioning, Emanuel has repeatedly acknowledged falling short of his campaign promises. But, he has argued that the inspector general’s office has been insulated from budget cuts that have “dramatically reduced” every other city department.

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