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Ethics reforms target Burke; Panel could pursue probes of aldermen

The Chicago Sun-Times has questioned Ald. Edward M. Burke about alleged conflicts of interest between his power on the City Council and his work as a lawyer, representing interests of airlines and property owners. Ald. Edward M. Burke changed votes involving his clients. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Chicago’s Board of Ethics would be granted unfettered subpoena power to investigate aldermen under ethics reforms blessed by Mayor Daley and tailor-made to address practices of Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th).

“This is as strong [an ethics package] as any city in this country [has], if not stronger,” said Rules and Ethics Committee Chairman Richard F. Mell (33rd), who is pushing for the reforms. “If that is not a deterrent, and the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI are not deterrents, I don’t know what we can do.”

Daley will introduce the reforms directly to the Rules Committee so they can be approved Wednesday and adopted by the full Council on July 2, according to Ald. Patrick Huels (11th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader.

“Everybody is tired of reading about the City Council,” Huels said, referring to the steady drumbeat of news accounts of federal corruption investigations that have sent 21 aldermen to prison since 1973. A jury now is deliberating charges against Ald. Jesse Evans (21st). Two more present or former aldermen are awaiting trial.

“We can’t legislate against some of the things that people do in their lives,” Huels said. “But we can put rules in place and hope that people will now choose to abide by the rules. If it’s made perfectly clear, they have no reason to hide from the fact that they have a business.”

Four months after Daley prodded the City Council to clean its own house, he has endorsed the ethics package, which closes major loopholes but stops short of requiring aldermen to work full time.

The Board of Ethics, which already exists but is expressly forbidden to investigate aldermen, would become the judge and jury of City Council conduct. The seven-member board, composed of mayoral appointees, would be free to subpoena aldermen and their records without City Council approval and to hold hearings and impose $1,000 fines if violations are determined.

The proposals contain two items that seem aimed directly at Burke’s practices.

One would require aldermen to abstain from voting whenever they have a business relationship with a person or business seeking almost anything from the Council – including loans, grants, leases, bond proceeds and zoning changes. A business relationship would be defined as being paid more than $2,500 for any purpose by that company or individual.

Aldermen now must abstain from voting on matters in which they have an “economic interest distinguishable from the general public.” That vague wording has permitted attorney Burke to continue voting on some City Council matters affecting clients he represents on property tax issues with the county.

Aldermen who wish to abstain from voting on an issue would have to submit requests in writing to the city clerk. The form would state the precise nature of the conflict.

And the reforms would make more open the process when aldermen correct the City Council journal, the Council’s official record.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week that Burke used a rare parliamentary maneuver to change the record on City Council votes dating back as long as seven years. The corrections to the City Council journal angered Burke’s aldermanic colleagues. Burke blamed a dead committee chairman for failing to record the abstentions.

To prevent such maneuvers, future journal corrections would be filed with the city clerk and referred to the Rules Committee for aldermanic review.

For the first time, lobbyists would be subject to the same $1,500 limit on campaign contributions already imposed on the companies they represent. They also would be required to disclose gifts they give to city employees and public officials. Lobbyists who spend or earn more than $1,000 would be required to file the semiannual disclosure statements; under current rules, disclosure isn’t required until $5,000 is earned.

Although the proposed reforms are stronger than expected, Ald. Joseph Moore (49th) said anything short of a ban on outside income amounts to tinkering at the margins. Moore gave up his law practice when he was elected in 1991.

“A much easier way to bribe an alderman – and a much safer way – is not to give him cash but to buy insurance or real estate from him or to hire him as your attorney. Until you get rid of that, you’ll always have an opportunity for the more subtle and insidious forms of corruption,” Moore said.

Requiring aldermen to work full time for taxpayers is ill-advised, Huels said. “People bring a lot of different backgrounds to this job. . . . Whatever type of business you may be in could help broaden your horizons and give you more insight when you have legislative matters before you.”

No matter what form the ethics crackdown takes, it will do no more to stop political corruption than the burgeoning criminal code does to stop violent crime, said Ald. Thomas Allen (38th).

“If it’s going to make people feel good to put more ethics laws on the books, go for it. Do whatever you want. I’ll vote for them. Would a new ethics ordinance stop a public official from taking a cash payment? The answer is obvious. No. If someone is inclined to take money, they’ll do it,” Allen said.

Daley ran for mayor in 1989 on a promise to appoint an inspector general with subpoena power to investigate aldermen and City Council employees, then backed off in the face of aldermanic opposition.

Under Daley, ethics reforms have been limited to curbing the way aldermen spend their $23,280-a-year expense allowance, requiring them to submit vouchers to justify the spending and forcing them to keep time sheets on City Council employees or risk censure or removal from their committee chairs.

Interest in ethics legislation has ebbed and flowed. The indictment of former Ald. John Madrzyk (13th) in February prompted Daley to prod the Council toward another, more meaningful round of reforms.

Since then, the heat has been turned up.

The Sun-Times has published a series of articles detailing Burke’s alleged conflicts of interest. Newspaper editorials have demanded Burke’s ouster as Finance Committee chairman and new and tougher standards for aldermanic conduct.

The corruption trial of Evans has included incriminating videotapes. Chicagoans are used to hearing the voices of their corrupt aldermen. Never before has there been video to go along with it.

“Seeing an alderman allegedly receiving a bribe on TV and definitely receiving cash has a powerful impact on people. Unfortunately, it underscores the public’s view that the City Council is for sale. If we don’t do something to respond (through ethics reforms), we’re tarred with the same broad brush, and we should be,” Moore said.