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Op-Ed Thu Feb 21 2013
By Dick Simpson
Once again the Chicago City Council proved it's not ready for reform. Recently, the council voted unanimously to pass the second set of reforms proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Ethics Task Force, except as the reforms would apply to them.
Under the new ordinance, Mayor Emanuel's newly appointed Ethics Board is granted more power to approve investigations and punishments for ethics violations. But instead of being accountable like all other city employees, aldermen created their own legislative inspector general. They did this instead of allowing the effective city inspector general, Joe Ferguson, to investigate them or their staffs.
The council's special legislative inspector general can only investigate on sworn complaints approved by the Ethics Board, not on his own initiative or from anonymous complaints. It does not matter what evidence is provided in support of the complaints. And making false claims against aldermen will bring a $2,000 fine to anyone who dares to challenge them without sufficient evidence.
Their legislative inspector general is given no staff or enforcement powers. With such a limited budget and authority, in his first year in office he has brought no cases to the Ethics Board or to state and federal prosecutors.
Mayor Emanuel warned the aldermen that these omissions "reinforces a cynicism about you." He vowed that, "As long as I'm mayor, I'm going to continue to push reform, continue to push change." While I often criticize the mayor's actions, he has, in the case of ethics reform, lived up to many of his promises. He still needs to grant the city inspector general power over other city agencies, provide information which his law department withholds, and provide the funds for sufficient staffing, but he has moved ethics reforms forward. Unlike the aldermen, Mayor Emanuel deserves praise for doing so, as they deserve blame for failing in ethics reform.
A year ago, my university colleagues and I issued a report [PDF] proving that Chicago is the most corrupt city in the country and Illinois is the third most corrupt state. We continue to hold that dubious title.
Our corruption predates the Capone era, when his gang bought the mayor and the police department. From 1976-2011, Chicago and its suburbs had 1,561 corruption convictions in federal court. The cost of this corruption to the taxpayers is at least $500 million a year. In our reports we have disclosed corruption at the state, county, city and suburban level.
We are famous for having four of our last seven governors serve jail time. Under these circumstances one would think that the aldermen, especially in these tight budget times, would be leading the way to end corruption. Not so in Chicago.
Mayor Emanuel appointed an Ethics Task Force, replaced the Ethics Board, and forced most of the ethics ordinance amendments through the council.
His Ethics Task Force proposed improvements in prevention, education, political activity, investigation, enforcement and lobbying. Most of their recommendations have now been enacted. But like the 31 aldermen and former aldermen who have served jail time, current aldermen are opposing ethics reform as much as they can. And over the last 25 years the old Board of Ethics found no cases of wrong-doing by aldermen, even as they were convicted of federal felonies. Hopefully, Emanuel's newly appointed Board of Ethics, with their newfound power under the ordinance, will do better.
Curing the culture of corruption is something all of us must do. There is no silver bullet. Chicago's first corruption trial was in 1869 over a corrupt contract to paint City Hall.
Our corruption has a 150 year history and can't be changed by any single act. We need long-term measures like teaching ethics and the cost of corruption in the public schools. We need to continue short term incremental changes like the ethic ordinance reforms. But don't count on aldermanic leadership. In this arena, citizens must lead the way in ending corruption.
This article first appeared in Inside Publications.