The latest report from the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General is out and it's not pretty. One would hope for reports that detail the ethical nature of city employees and compliance with policy and procedure. Maybe that's utopian and unrealistic. However, what is realistic is continuing division between the mayoral administration and the IG's office. This division continuing despite the new tenure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In a letter accompanying the report, Inspector General Joseph Ferguson notes that this is the first quarterly IG report delivered to the new mayor and city council. Ferguson refreshes observers on the critical role the IG can play. The operative word being can.
The IGO's ordinance-directed role is to point out misconduct, inefficiencies, and ineffectiveness and to make recommendations regarding policies and practices to improve City operations. It is up to the City’s elected leadership to effect the change needed to make the IGO's recommendations worth their cost. As more of these recommendations are engaged, debated and, where deemed appropriate, acted on, the better investment the IGO is for the City.
It is here that the IG details problems the office has that pertain to its independence. Advocates of a more transparent city government push for more powers and autonomy for the office, but the mayoralty stands in the way. Ferguson says that "as currently configured, [the Inspector General's office] only has contingent independence. While the IGO can choose whom it wants to hire on its own, it cannot make its hires without approval from the Mayor's office." This is important because Ferguson notes that office's "budget remains unprotected" and therefore it is "vulnerable to retribution" based on the investigations the office conducts. The report notes that because of the way hiring must be completed that the office "is presently operating at staffing levels approximately 25% below its 2011 budget appropriation." Additionally, the office "has been unable to fill vacancies since last fall" and because of that, the office "will continue to struggle with clearing older cases until appropriate personnel resources are in place."
Ferguson goes on to lament the many features of a true independent office that are missing from the Chicago's version of an inspector general. The "office still cannot directly communicate investigative information to the City's sister agencies, such as the Chicago Public Schools and its IGO, as well as many associated law enforcement agencies." If the IG finds tangential malfeasance at a city agency that may be related to sister city agencies, the city IG is not allowed to pass that information along to that function's IG. Additionally, the city IG is not allowed to hand information over to law enforcement to investigate possible criminal violations, another handicap.
The IG is also having its subpoena undermined by the City's Law Department. Even though the IG's office "is empowered to independently issue subpoenas," the Law Department argues that "the IGO is not an independent agency, and that certain of its investigative and enforcement capacities instead are contingent upon the discretion of the Law Department itself and where there is conflict, the Mayor, without recourse or review by a court, even in instances in which the Law Department and, concomitantly, the Mayor, has a conflict of interest." The Emanuel administration has gone so far as to file a petition with the Illinois Supreme Court "adopting the positions of the Daley Administration in all these respects."
Additionally, the IG report notes that the hiring compliance section of the office is currently understaffed. Ferguson said it "will be virtually impossible for the City to demonstrate compliance with the Shakman strictures without a fully resourced Hiring Compliance unit." The Shakman section of the IG's office was created by a federal court as a space for employees to go "who believe they have been subjected to political discrimination by the City of Chicago in any employment decision."
The Daley mayoralty tried to undermine the inspector general's powers through legal routes, which included court fights. The Emanuel administration has expanded the war on the IG to another front: employment. By dragging its feet an approving hires, Emanuel can effectively short any investigations the IG may or may want to undertake. The reportstates that the law governing the IG says the office "must provide quarterly statistical data on pending investigations opened for more than twelve months." Over 20 cases have had their investigation time expand beyond a one year time frame because of a "lack of sufficient investigative resources over the course of the investigation" and the fact that "investigators' caseloads were too high to enable cases to be completed in a timely manner."
The lesson in all of this is that if you want stop an investigation from the inside, or just prevent general transparency, just put some investigators in place, and don't give them any resources to work with or co-workers to help lighten the load. Just the short the investigators and then they can't be so darned pesky.
[Editor's note: The full report from the Office of Inspector General can be read here.]