The city of Chicago has a well-documented, longstanding, widespread problem with public corruption. The latest example can be found in the 20th Ward, where Alderman Willie Cochran is under federal investigation for his use of campaign funds.
For reform-minded aldermen, annual budget hearings are an opportune time to address this problem. But at the Chicago Board of Ethics budget hearing Oct. 21, a mere 10 of 50 city aldermen bothered to show up.
During the budgeting process, politicians have the opportunity to publicly question city officials charged with keeping corruption in check as those officials justify their budgets. But at the Board of Ethics hearing, aldermen did not ask a single question.
Instead, Alderman Anthony Beale, 9th Ward, played “Go Cubs, Go” from his cellphone in reference to the board’s recent ruling that aldermen cannot accept a face-value ticket offer from the Chicago Cubs organization unless they perform a ceremonial duty at the game.
The hearing was over in less than five minutes.
“It had to be a record,” wrote Daily Line reporter Claudia Morell.
The Board of Ethics has four main responsibilities: to advise city government personnel on issues related to Chicago’s ethics ordinance, to educate city personnel on the contents of the ethics ordinance, to enforce that ordinance, and to regulate lobbyists and others through a mandatory disclosure process.
The board received more than $850,000 in 2016 from taxpayers. But there is little evidence to suggest it’s doing a good job at transforming the city’s culture of corruption.
A July report from government watchdog group ProjectSix revealed 37 of 50 Chicago aldermen took campaign contributions that violated the city’s ethics rules. This flies in the face of at least three – if not all – of the board’s foundational responsibilities.
The Board of Ethics has not taken any public action in the wake of this research. Aldermen should have asked why. Instead, they asked nothing.
Members of the Board of Ethics are appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council. In the first 25 years since its founding in 1987, the board did not find a single alderman guilty of wrongdoing, despite the fact that more than 20 Chicago aldermen were convicted of felonies over that time, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The Board of Ethics should make major efforts to improve the process by which city employees and aldermen are educated about the city ethics code. It should also be transformed into an independent body in the vein of the Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s office. While the board is beholden to aldermen to approve its funding each year, Ferguson’s office enjoys a funding guarantee. He need not beg City Council for money while his office may be investigating its members.
“This isn’t the first year that the budget hearing has been so short with so few in attendance. It’s been a love fest,” said former Chicago Legislative Inspector General and ProjectSix CEO Faisal Khan. “There have been too many times where the Board of Ethics has protected the interests of aldermen instead of protecting taxpayers. That needs to change.”
Chicago is the nation’s corruption capital. And 33 of some 200 aldermen since 1970 have gone to prison.
One would think that a board tasked with enforcing transparency in city government would be transparent itself. But that’s not the case. Even though City Code mandates the board release reports summarizing its activities “at least semiannually,” it has not posted an annual report on its website since 2009.
Why? Perhaps aldermen should have asked.
When it comes to corruption, the Board of Ethics should be among the first lines of protection and an agent of cultural change. Instead, it often serves as a lapdog giving only the appearance of oversight.
City Council and Mayor Rahm Emanuel should be held responsible for this state of affairs. Clearly, they have no interest in changing it.
Aldermen in attendance at the board’s budget hearing Oct. 21 included: Michelle Harris (8th Ward), Anthony Beale (9th Ward), Raymond Lopez (15th Ward), Matt O'Shea (19th Ward), Michael Zalewski (23rd Ward), Jason Ervin (28th Ward), Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward), Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward), Tom Tunney (44th Ward) and James Cappleman (46th Ward).
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