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Rahm Emanuel’s legacy on ethics: The storm cloud lifted — except at CPS

Mayor Rahm Emanuel gets relatively good marks on the ethical performance of his administration — but a glaring exception, some say, is at Chicago Public Schools, where two CEOs stepped down amid ethics scandals; the first to go was Barbara Byrd-Bennett (left) now in prison. | Sun-
Times file photo

The Hired Truck, city hiring and minority contracting scandals cast a giant shadow over former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.

The storm cloud lifted under Rahm Emanuel.

The only major bribery scandal to touch Emanuel’s City Hall actually happened in Ohio, long before the now-convicted Amer Ahmad became Chicago’s city comptroller.

At the Chicago Public Schools, it was a different story.

ANALYSIS

There, Emanuel suffered the embarrassment of having his hand-picked schools CEO convicted in a contract kickback scandal that victimized the nearly-bankrupt school system.

Adding insult to injury, Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s replacement, Forrest Claypool, was forced out after attempting to cover up an ethics scandal of his own.

“This stuff boils his blood for the same reason that, maybe, an IG report boils his blood,” said Inspector General Joe Ferguson.

“It disrupts the agenda. It disrupts the narrative. It disrupts the reputation. He has no stomach for it whatsoever.”

With that corruption intolerance in mind, Ferguson was asked whether Emanuel has run a clean administration.

“Given the history of this town and the backdrop of this town, you’d have to say `yes.’ On the other hand, you’d have to say that’s a low bar,” Ferguson said.

The inspector general noted there has been “a lot of great progress made, particularly on procurement reform” in the wake of the bribery scandal at CPS.

“This is a period of intense economic growth and development in this city. And, by and large, it’s been straight down the line” in awarding contracts, he said.

Former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, endorsed Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot and embraced her sweeping ethics reforms.

Simpson agreed Emanuel has run a “relatively clean” administration.

“I would probably give him … a B-grade because of the patronage issues and ethics reforms,” he said.

“On the other hand, Chicago is still the most corrupt city in the country. And we have a major scandal occurring in the City Council.”

Daley’s patronage chief, Streets and Sanitation commissioner and a handful of others were convicted of rigging city hiring to benefit the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization and other pro-Daley armies of political workers.

Under Emanuel, Chicago was released from the Shakman decree and the costly constraints of a federal hiring monitor; to do so, it convinced a federal judge the city finally could be trusted to police its own hiring.

The City Council was dragged — at times kicking and screaming — into approving five rounds of ethics reforms. They included hiring a legislative inspector general — who was ultimately forced out, he claimed, for refusing to be a lapdog.

When Faisal Khan was shown the door, Ferguson was finally ushered in.

But before empowering Ferguson to investigate aldermen and their employees, the City Council voted 25-23 to limit Ferguson to investigating potential violations of the law by aldermen and their employees.

Program audits that Ferguson routinely conducts to determine whether taxpayers’ money is being wasted were declared off-limits when it comes to the City Council.

The $100 million-a-year workers’ comp program, at the time administered by then-Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th), was spared from Ferguson’s scrutiny. So was the $66 million-a-year aldermanic menu program.

Emanuel didn’t push the issue. He allowed aldermen — whose votes he needed for matters he viewed as more important — to take a half step instead of a whole one.

Ferguson spent two years in a cold war with Emanuel; a legal battle over access to documents went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Their relationship was so frosty it appeared Emanuel was counting the days until Ferguson’s term expired. Only after the Ohio bribery scandal culminated in Ahmad’s conviction did Emanuel seem to realize Ferguson was more helpful than threatening.

After that, Ferguson was re-appointed twice. His powers and budget were expanded exponentially.

“That was a tipping point moment for sort of a reset for the relationship,” Ferguson said of the Ahmad scandal.

“When he came on board, the office was about 55 people. Its responsibility was significant but much narrower. Right now, it’s a 106-person office. Its responsibilities have grown and grown and grown. Its resources have grown. And all of that is because of … recognitions on his part that, ultimately, to move forward, to fix things, this is a critical function.”

The inspector general pointed to something he heard former New York City Mayor Edward Koch say after a “huge scandal” hit late in his administration.

“He was depressed for months. And it took him a while to realize this isn’t about him. It’s about how he responds to it. That’s gonna be the legacy. That’s gonna be the judgment,” Ferguson said.

“It takes some people longer to figure that out. Mayor Emanuel figured that out relatively early on. But it took some crises to actually bring him to it.”

Ferguson acknowledged the back-to-back Byrd-Bennett and Claypool scandals at CPS were an “unbelievable embarrassment” for Emanuel, who fashions himself as an “education mayor.”

Byrd not only stole from a nearly-bankrupt system; she was a role model for kids from impoverished black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

“There’s a criticism of the actual selection when something breaks bad. … If Mayor Emanuel was sort of critiquing himself, he’d say we would have … actually vetted major appointees more closely on the front end,” Ferguson said.

“That’s something we don’t do in this city. In New York City, it’s a matter of law. You send that to their IG equivalent to conduct a background investigation, so you don’t have exposure.”

Simpson noted that the woman Emanuel affectionately called “B3” was “held out to be a reformer who was improving the schools.”

“There should have been red flags, given some of her previous involvement, as came out in the court case, with her former employer,” Simpson said.

Emanuel is leaving office long before Chicagoans will know the full breadth of a City Hall corruption scandal with blockbuster potential to disrupt the city’s power structure.

When the City Council’s second-most powerful alderman spends more than two years wearing a wire on the most powerful alderman, the possibilities are endless.

Early on Emanuel threatened to depose Ald. Burke as Finance Committee chairman, only to reach a political accommodation with the alderman that allowed Burke to retain his power base for eight more years and retain control over the workers’ comp program.

Emanuel also signed off on the City Council reorganization that gave Chicago eight more years with the now-disgraced FBI mole, Ald. Danny Solis (25th), as Zoning Committee chairman.

A few years in, Solis came under federal surveillance himself. Only after being confronted with evidence of his own rampant and sordid wrongdoing did Solis agree to spend more than two years wearing a wire on Burke, according to a federal affidavit.

David Axelrod has a 30-year friendship with Emanuel. They served together in the Obama White House.

Axelrod, director and co-founder of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, has argued that Emanuel made the right call.

“Ed Burke has been an important player in the City Council for half a century. His cooperation is valuable. His opposition could be really damaging. You have to weigh all these things,” Axelrod told the Sun-Times recently.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of wimping out. … It’s making that judgment: Weighing the cost of war with a really influential member of the City Council versus passing a program at a really [perilous] time for the city when you had to get stuff done. In the 80’s, we’ve seen what a resourceful and hostile Burke, [Ed] Vrdolyak, City Council could do to a sitting mayor.”

Simpson acknowledged Burke’s penchant for mischief-making made the decision to take him out a “complicated call.”

But he argued it would have been “a good idea” for Emanuel to have weathered the storm.

“He would have been able to organize the Council under [Pat] O’Connor, for instance, instead of Burke, if he had chosen to do so [even though] it would have been a tough fight, and it might have slowed his agenda,” Simpson said.

“I don’t think we can hold him responsible for the current scandal because there is no direct involvement of the administration … other than low-level officials. But I do think the rubber stamp City Council — which poses problems for democracy but makes for ease of getting administration programs through — can be laid at his door.”