Chicago deemed ‘corruption leader’ in 2015

From red-light cameras to a police dash cam, cigarettes to city checks, public schools to City Hall, 2015 was another black mark on the ethics record of Chicago government.

A new report from researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago details public corruption across Illinois over the course of 2015, noting that Chicagoans “experienced a very active corruption scene.”

Among the city’s most notable corruption convictions in recent months:

  • Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in October 2015 to steering $23 million in city contracts to her former employer, SUPES Academy.
  • John Bills, formerly second-in-command at the Department of Transportation, was found guilty in January 2016 for his role in steering the city’s red-light-camera business to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.
  • Antionette Chenier, a former Department of Transportation clerk, pleaded guilty in April 2015 to embezzling nearly $750,000 in permit fees.
  • Abd Ayesh, a former compliance supervisor in the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, pleaded guilty in January 2015 to stealing and selling more than $2,000 worth of confiscated, unstamped cigarette cartons.

Among the major investigations launched:

  • A Cook County grand jury on Dec. 16, 2015, indicted Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke on six counts of murder and one count of official misconduct in the killing of Laquan McDonald.
  • Staffers at two public schools were arrested and charged with theft of more than $876,000 from Chicago Public Schools through a fraudulent purchasing and reimbursement scheme.
  • In June 2015, FBI agents obtained warrants to search two email accounts related to an alleged bribery scheme wherein Felipe Oropesa, an executive at LAZ Parking, attempted to steer a $22 million Chicago parking meter contract toward Cale Parking Systems USA Inc. in exchange for $90,000. The Chicago Sun-Times reported in February that Oropesa indicated he would plead guilty.

Despite so much evidence pointing to a corruption epidemic in Chicago, city leaders have not taken the steps necessary to ensure effective oversight in their own chambers.

After operating without any local watchdog for months following the departure of Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, members of Chicago City Council passed a watered-down ordinance submitting themselves to the ethics oversight of Inspector General Joe Ferguson, but not to his auditing powers. Given that Alderman Ed Burke, 14th Ward, led the charge in weakening that ordinance, many speculated that the move was meant to shield the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program – controlled by Burke’s Finance Committee – from close examination.

But aldermen aren’t the only ones afraid of sunlight.

After intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the killing of Laquan McDonald, it came to light that Chicago’s own police contract calls for the destruction of citizen complaint records against officers after five or seven years, depending on the type of complaint – a provision that Chicago police unions are fighting the city in court to enforce. These records can be invaluable in identifying patterns of misconduct (police misconduct has cost the city $53,000 per officer since 2004), and their destruction could make it difficult or impossible for Chicagoans tortured into false confessions under the reign of disgraced former police commander Jon Burge to argue for new hearings, according to Craig Futterman, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Fixing Chicago’s culture of corruption will require battles on many different fronts, from aldermanic oversight, to collective-bargaining reform and beyond. All of them will require the courage of public officials with nothing to hide.

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