Nothing to see here: Chicago aldermen run out the clock on their own oversight in wake of massive CPS scandal

Chicago’s perennial title as the nation’s “Capital of Corruption” was made all too real in October, as former Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pled guilty to steering millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to a former employer in exchange for the promise of millions more in kickbacks.

So understandably, when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel included $45 million in property-tax hikes to fund CPS construction projects in his 2016 budget, Chicagoans were concerned about oversight. But some of those concerned Chicagoans serve on the City Council, a body that has lost all credibility on matters of good government.

Chicago aldermen expressed concern over the lack of oversight and transparency at CPS, just as the contract with their own watchdog, Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, is about to expire. And what happens after that is anyone’s guess.

"There's a great deal of mistrust (for CPS) in the City Council,” said 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke, according to the Chicago Tribune. Burke has been dubbed the “real mayor of Chicago,” and has held office since 1969.

“[A]nd a lot of the members did not want to vote to give the Board of Education a blank check with $45 million in property taxes, unless there are assurances the capital expenditures would be consistent with what the needs of the neighborhoods are," Burke said.

The Burke-chaired Committee on Finance called for stricter reporting standards for CPS, which Emanuel accepted and included in the 2016 Chicago budget passed by the City Council on Oct. 28.

Pot, meet kettle.

The crime rate for members of Chicago City Council is higher than rates in the city’s most violent neighborhoods, with 33 aldermen convicted and sent to jail since 1973, according to work by political researchers Dick Simpson and Thomas Gradel. Two more aldermen died before going to trial.

But despite this disturbing track record, the city’s contract with Kahn, the City Council’s chief watchdog, ends Nov. 16.

While the 2016 budget does keep funding for the Office of the Legislative Inspector General, or OLIG, flat at $354,000 (Kahn says that’s barely a quarter of what he needs to do the job well), City Council has done nothing to prepare for the expiration of Kahn’s contract.

Kahn could opt to keep working without a contract, his staff could keep operating without a boss, or the lights could simply go out on the whole operation.

OLIG staff say they don’t know which option is most likely.

“We’re spending time trying to wrap up as many cases as possible while organizing the remaining cases so that they can be taken up by the appropriate entity when possible,” said Assistant Legislative Inspector General Michael Graham.

In other words, City Council has effectively run out the clock on its own oversight for the time being.

After years of being exempt from oversight by the city’s Office of the Inspector General, currently headed by Joe Ferguson, Chicago City Council voted in 2010 to establish its own watchdog. The OLIG was to be dedicated solely to the scrutiny of Chicago aldermen and City Council employees, unlike the Office of the Inspector General, which oversees everybody else in city government. It was also created to be far less effective than Ferguson’s office at rooting out corruption.

Among some of the restrictions that handicap Khan, but not Ferguson:

  • The OLIG cannot act on anonymous complaints.
  • The OLIG cannot proactively investigate wrongdoing. It must act only upon receipt of a formal complaint.
  • The OLIG has no subpoena power until the Chicago Board of Ethics signs off on an investigation.
  • Once the Board of Ethics approves an investigation, the OLIG must notify the alderman in question that he or she is the subject of an investigation as well as the reason for the investigation.

In April, 23 aldermen signed on to an ordinance that would have Ferguson’s office absorb the duties of Kahn and his staff – a reasonable reform that should have been implemented long ago.

Ferguson’s office has a larger, more experienced staff, fewer hurdles to conducting thorough investigations, and guaranteed funding. Merging the two offices would also eliminate the absurd double standard that currently exists between aldermen and every other government employee outside of City Council, when it comes to oversight.

There is no time for the city to find a new legislative inspector general. It took 18 months to hire Kahn after City Council created the office he now runs. That cannot happen again. Renewing Kahn’s contract would be an acceptable move, but meaningless without removing the strictures that hobble the OLIG in its work.

Alderman Patrick O’Connor, chairman of the Committee on Workforce Development and Audit, where the ordinance now sits, should be the brave city official who pushes the ordinance for a full City Council vote.

Time is of the essence. If history is any indicator, another Byrd-Bennett-esque scandal will rear its head. If that happens within the confines of City Council, Chicagoans should blame those who have failed year after year to implement effective oversight.

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