Ever try to find street parking around the United Center on your way to a concert, Bulls or Blackhawks game and come up empty, forcing you to pay through the nose at a private lot?
It might just be the result of a clout-parking scheme engineered by a former manager at the city’s 911 emergency center and executed by eight supervisors and traffic control aides to benefit “friends and family” attending United Center events.
Inspector General Joe Ferguson on Monday lifted the veil on the parking scheme in a new report that also alleges similar arrangements at other city venues.
The alleged ringleader — a management-level employee at the Office of Emergency Management and Communications — retired shortly after being asked to schedule an interview about the allegations.
Ferguson’s office conducted 16 surveillances at the United Center between April 20, 2015 and Feb. 11, 2016. Thirteen of the undercover missions occurred during Blackhawks games — and nine of those were during the run-up to the Hawks 2015 Stanley Cup championship.
Undercover investigators saw Emergency Management employees “directing select individuals attending the games to park on the west side of Wood Street between Madison Street and Warren Boulevard, less than a quarter of a mile away from the United Center on almost all of its surveillances,” Ferguson wrote in his quarterly report.
Signs “indicted that no parking was allowed except for media personnel. OEMC personnel routinely blocked off southbound access to Wood from Warren, only granting access to those who OEMC management granted permission to park” while members of the public were sent elsewhere. Schemers even put traffic cones on Wood as “placeholders” for friends and family, Ferguson wrote.
Roughly 62 different vehicles parked on the west side of Wood between Warren and Madison during the surveillances, Ferguson said. Many of those received favored treatment on “multiple occasions,” the inspector general said.
Parking requests from friends and relatives of management-level emergency management employees were sent to city email addresses. OEMC managers would notify supervisors working outside the United Center of the names and vehicle descriptions of the VIP parkers who should be allowed on Wood. Traffic control aides posted on Wood received similar information.
Many supervisors were “candid” about the preferred parking when questioned, openly admitting their role, Ferguson said.
Two employees of the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications and one Streets and Sanitation employee also acknowledged parking free at United Center events, the report states.
Some OEMC employees “lied or were evasive” during interviews with Ferguson’s investigators, and were recommended for termination.
“Evidence suggested that the scheme was happening elsewhere in the city, including at other major venues, and involved other city departments,” Ferguson wrote.
The inspector general recommended that the city “take steps to ensure that the parking scheme” was not continuing at other locations and events. It was not known what became of that request.
The Street and Sanitation employee accused of benefiting from the parking scheme was slapped with a 14-day suspension.
All OEMC employees targeted by the IG were hit with suspensions ranging from five days to 30 days. Ferguson recommended firing another Emergency Management employee, but the department chose a 30-day suspension because officials were “not fully convinced the employee set out to deliberately mislead” the inspector general.
To prevent a repeat of the scheme, the department plans ethics training for Traffic Management Authority employees, with help from the Board of Ethics.
Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, called the preferred parking scheme “unacceptable.” She noted that it “predated” her tenure.
“The department has zero tolerance for this behavior. It is a privilege to serve the public as a City employee, and we expect all employees to adhere to the highest ethical standards,” Tate-Nadeau was quoted as saying in an email.
“We have taken action and have administered appropriate discipline to those involved to ensure that these practices do not happen again.”