Over 90 percent of Chicago business leaders say city is home to cronyism

Chicago is America’s corruption capital. And nowhere is that more evident than in the cronyism that tilts the city’s economy toward favored political players.

More than 9 in 10 Chicago business leaders agreed that a form of cronyism is practiced in Chicago, according to a new study commissioned by the Committee for Economic Development. The study used the term “crony capitalism,” defined as “the unhealthy relationship between some businesses and government, which can lead to favoritism in the form of tax breaks, government grants, and other incentives.”

Among the other notable findings:

  • Half felt there was “a lot” of pressure on businesses to make political contributions
  • More than half felt the ethical behavior of elected and appointed officials is a very serious issue
  • Nearly 8 in 10 felt the city is off on the wrong track
  • More than 9 in 10 felt using paid lobbyists and making political contributions helps companies gain a business advantage

In 2015 alone, the city saw two major corruption convictions related to city officials using political privilege for private gain.

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. And 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.

But to see the day-to-day reality of pay-to-play politics, look no further than Chicago City Council.

Chicago’s ethics ordinance prohibits elected officials from receiving campaign contributions in excess of $1,500 from individuals who have done business with the city or its sister agencies within the previous four years, individuals seeking to do business with the city or its sister agencies, and lobbyists.

A 2013 report from the city’s legislative inspector general found that more than half of aldermen violated these rules.

Actually enforcing the laws on the books would be a solid first step in reducing cronyism in city government. But to really get money out of politics, Chicago needs to get politics out of business.

Currently, Chicago aldermen serve as kings of mini-fiefdoms: ruling over permitting, zoning, road maintenance and a myriad of other administrative matters in their respective wards. Crony capitalism is inevitable in this system, as red tape ends up strangling those who refuse to play politics, but falls away with the right connections.

These responsibilities should not fall on the shoulders of Chicago aldermen.

Over the past 40 years, 33 of some 200 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of federal crimes, such as bribery, extortion, embezzlement, conspiracy, mail fraud and income-tax evasion. And yet, City Council has failed to get serious about its own oversight.

After operating without any local watchdog for months following the departure of Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, members of Chicago City Council in February 2016 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  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.

Solving Chicago’s cronyism crisis will require a major culture shift in City Council. Until aldermen get serious about following the city’s ethics ordinance and reducing their influence in the lives of business owners, the city’s toxic political climate will only persist.

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