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Inspector general acknowledges friendship with Lightfoot might become an issue

Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Friday he won’t hesitate to “pull the ripcord” if he thinks his friendship with Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot conflicts with his role as a city watchdog, and he refused to rule out a 2020 race for state’s attorney.

Ferguson and Lightfoot served together in the U.S. attorney’s office.

When he was appointed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2009 to replace departing Inspector General David Hoffman, Lightfoot was among those who vouched for and recommended her friend Joe Ferguson.

That close relationship has raised questions about just how independent Ferguson can be in a Lightfoot administration. There has even been speculation that he may change roles and, perhaps, become her corporation counsel.

Ferguson has insisted that no job changing conversations have taken place. But he acknowledged Friday that the questions about his independence are legitimate and may become an issue, although not immediately.

“For the first year or so, what you’re looking at as IG really all relates to the past [Emanuel] administration,” Ferguson told the Sun-Times. He has 2 1/2 years left in his four-year term.

Once the focus turns to Lightfoot’s administration, Ferguson said he will be “mindful of the appearances.”

“If I think that, at some point, there really is a question as we start to look into stuff having to do with her administration, then I’d probably pull the ripcord and say, ‘OK. It’s time for somebody else to do the job,'” he said.

Ferguson hesitated when asked whether he would consider a 2020 race for state’s attorney against embattled incumbent Kim Foxx.

Foxx is more vulnerable than ever after Lightfoot crushed Foxx’s political patron, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, with 74 percent of the vote and a clean sweep of Chicago’s 50 wards.

“Umm, you know what, the honest answer for me for years has been, sure. I would love to be in any number of offices. But the process that you have to go through to win victory — to raise money, the handshaking and all that sort of stuff” is neither pleasant nor inviting, he said.

“I feel like I’ve been blessed. I’ve gotten to do jobs where I feel like I’m making significant contributions to the [public] and civic good without ever having had to run for office. I’m in such a position now.”

Reminded that his answer did not slam the door on a run for public office, Ferguson said, “Yeah, you don’t hear a no. But look, I’m getting on in years and there’s only so much time.”

That was followed by nervous laughter.

Foxx has been under fire for dropping the charges against Jussie Smollett without an admission of guilt or an apology for, according to Chicago Police, orchestrating a hate crime hoax against himself.

Instead, the “Empire” actor was allowed to walk after forfeiting the $10,000 in bond money he put up and spending two days performing community service at Rainbow PUSH.

Foxx faced intense scrutiny even before that for attempting to persuade Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson to transfer the investigation to the FBI at a time when Smollett was still viewed as the victim of a hate crime.

At the time, Foxx had been contacted by an influential supporter of the “Empire” actor: Tina Tchen, a Chicago attorney and former chief of staff for former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Foxx recused herself from the heater case, but never did so formally. She initially claimed the police investigation produced strong evidence that Smollett engineered a hate crime hoax, then said there were problems with the evidence.

On Friday, Ferguson was asked whether he views Foxx as politically vulnerable.

“She is not in a good situation. It’s a complicated thing. The state’s attorney’s office is something that, for years, people have talked about needing a good, top-to-bottom scrub,” he said.

“Unfortunately, in a situation like that, you lose a lot of the leverage and standing that you need in order to continue, sort of, reforming an organization that, in its old form, really was tied to the larger machine that, right now, is in the process of being dismantled.”

And what exactly does that mean for a Ferguson campaign for state’s attorney?

“A definite maybe. Sure,” he said.

After Hoffman, Ferguson’s predecessor, quit to run for the U.S. Senate, the City Council passed an ordinance to prevent it from happening again.

It states that no IG or employee of the office may “ hold, or become a candidate for, any other elected or appointed public office except for appointments to governmental advisory boards or study commissions” during their term.

Nor can the IG “actively participate in any campaign for any elective office.”

The ordinance also states: “The inspector general shall pledge in writing, at the time of his appointment, that, for two years after the termination of his appointment for any reason, the inspector general shall not..become a candidate for any elected public office which includes the City of Chicago in its geographic jurisdiction.”