By Cate Plys
If anyone still wonders why the City Council refuses to police itself even after 22 members have been packed off to prison in the last 24 years, consider Alderman Jesse Evans.
Evans is appealing his June 16 conviction for bribe taking, extortion, tax fraud, obstruction of justice, and using aldermanic expense funds to fix and insure his wife's cars. During his trial, he starred on the nightly news taking money in an FBI videotape. And he's still going to council meetings.
Evans showed up at the July 2 meeting, when the council was slated to vote on its new package of ethics regulations. Stubbornly refusing to recognize the irony of his own existence, Evans told reporters he supported the reforms. "I have no problem with that," he said.
True, Mayor Daley has called for Evans to resign and says he'll try to change the state law that lets Evans stay in office and get paid until his October sentencing. But on the council floor, aldermen as diverse as nominally independent John Steele and consummate insider William Banks shook hands and chatted amiably with Evans, no matter what they said behind his back later on. The aldermen don't like sitting in judgment of their peers, even one who's already been judged guilty by a jury of his peers.
As it turned out, Evans didn't get to vote on the ethics ordinance at the July 2 meeting. Aldermen John Buchanan and Virgil Jones used a parliamentary maneuver to postpone the vote until the next meeting, July 30. "Typical," said Daley at a press conference afterward. But the mayor's response to the ethics controversy is also typical--insisting he has no power over the council when it suits his purpose, and bending the aldermen to his will when his purpose changes. He's like a magician hiding an egg in his sleeve and finding it behind someone's ear on cue. At the press conference, Daley claimed it was up to the council to pass the new ethics ordinance, then assured reporters it would pass at the next meeting: "We're gonna pass it."
He'll get it passed. But the new ethics ordinance isn't likely to change the council.
Chicago was already 150 years old when Mayor Harold Washington rammed through the city's first Governmental Ethics Ordinance in 1987, and that was only due to incredible timing and an incredibly big concession to the aldermen.
Elections were days away, and the aldermen were afraid to vote against ethics right before an election. Even so, they fought hard. Washington held up council debate on the ordinance for four hours, making last-minute compromises. He needed an ethics ordinance to spruce up his image, since his reform administration had spawned the federal Operation Incubator investigation into the awarding of city bill-collecting contracts.
Washington's ordinance confirmed the Chicago Board of Ethics, created by executive order a year earlier, as the body to judge and investigate ethics violations by city officials and employees. But to get the law passed, Washington took the power to investigate the aldermen away from the board and gave it back to the aldermen themselves, through the council's Rules Committee.
The 1987 ordinance's key provisions included limiting individual political contributions to $1,500 and barring elected and appointed officials from acting as attorneys for other city agencies. It also prohibited hiring relatives in city government--but it excluded the aldermen's personal staffs.
The ethics debate resurfaced after Daley's election in 1989. Daley had talked tough while running for office and got an ethics package passed at his first council meeting. The new ordinance included a ban on city employees soliciting campaign contributions from people doing business or trying to do business with the city, and it prohibited companies doing business with the city from reimbursing employees who made campaign donations. Employees of firms doing business with the city could still make the maximum individual contribution of $1,500, however, a practice that had helped Daley raise $6 million for his '89 campaign.
Later that year, Daley created the Office of Inspector General and gave it subpoena power to investigate city personnel. But Alderman Robert Shaw successfully sponsored an amendment exempting the aldermen from the inspector's authority. "I pushed as hard as the Cubs did to get into the World Series," Daley insisted. Yet his council allies, including his floor leader, Alderman Patrick Huels, didn't oppose the amendment. "No way, I don't like to twist arms," Daley said afterward. "Nobody should twist arms in politics."
Since then, the council has passed a few more restrictions here and there. Aldermen must fill out financial disclosure forms. They also have strict rules for expense accounts--expenses are paid using a voucher system through the city comptroller's office. Committee chairs have to keep hiring reports, and committee workers fill out time sheets.
Of course, nothing's perfect. No one reviews the time sheets and hiring reports. The Sun-Times reported in March that the aldermen's financial disclosure forms aren't reviewed either.
And the voucher system isn't foolproof. Jesse Evans was convicted of using more than $9,000 from his expense account from 1991 to January 1996 for repairs, maintenance, and insurance on his wife's car. He also used it to pay a $350 advertising bill for Citizens to Re-Elect Jesse Evans.
After two years of Silver Shovel and Haunted Hall headlines, the City Council suddenly tried to debate and pass a new ethics ordinance in three weeks. Why the rush?
"The short answer to that is because the mayor's gotten behind it," says Alderman Joseph Moore, a rare council independent. "Nothing gets past the City Council without the mayor's support, and now that the mayor's introduced an ethics package and is pushing it, that's why suddenly something has a chance of passing. The aldermen, if left to their own devices, would never pass anything. Now why is the mayor doing it? The mayor's doing it because he's responding to newspaper editorials and press coverage of corruption at City Hall."
It's not that the editorials enlightened Daley. As another alderman, speaking anonymously, puts it, "I think they felt like they were under a lot of pressure. Huels said [Sun-Times reporter] Fran Spielman was calling him every day. So they were beginning to think the difficulties in the council might rub off on them if they didn't do something."
The Daley administration doesn't want constant talk about the way aldermen do business to turn into constant talk about the way City Hall does business. Daley has perfected the modern craft of pinstripe patronage, legally awarding no-bid city contracts to friends and cronies. Council Wars forced Harold Washington to sign an executive order sending major contracts to the City Council's Finance Committee for review, though the council couldn't stop the contracts. It was the one Washington order Daley refused to renew.
The dailies have reported a string of contracts to Daley friends. More than $100 million in no-bid O'Hare concession contracts, for instance, went to friends of Daley and his wife in March '96. Later that month, the city's first competing cable franchise went to 21st Century Cable, a company bursting with Daley associates whose application reported that its only experience consisted of a 12-channel cable system serving 159 out of 314 homes in Cave-in-Rock, Illinois. And most recently, a no-bid contract for more than $12 million went to Daley chum Tom Rosenberg to oversee the Chicago Public Schools' $1.4 billion building plan.
The deals are reported--Tribune political writer John Kass especially has hammered away on the topic--yet they haven't attracted the kind of public outrage and huge headlines that council shenanigans draw. One alderman who preferred to remain nameless noted, "While I think some terrible things have been done by my colleagues, I think in terms of magnitude there's a lot more going on in the executive branch that hasn't gotten attention, except by John Kass."
Better Government Association executive director J. Terrence Bruner agrees. "There are huge contracts. Who gets to sell peanuts at O'Hare, who gets to do all this stuff. This is the real action, but no one's doing anything about it," he says. "So you're not reading about it on the front page, just in Kass's column."
Bruner calls the new ethics ordinance "a colossal joke":
"All they want is a headline in the paper so the mayor can say, 'We did something about ethics.' And if he really wanted to do something, he could. Let's stop taking money from people with contracts [with the city]. Let's stop giving money to his wife's friends. Then you'd accomplish something."
Daley's dealings are beginning to attract more unwelcome attention now, thanks to the City Council. Three aldermen--Ambrosio Medrano, Allan Streeter, and Evans--have been convicted in the last year. But, as with Bulls championships, Chicagoans shouldn't get too attached to that number. Former aldermen Larry Bloom and John Madrzyk are now under federal indictment on various corruption charges, as is current alderman Ray Frias. There could be more. "I wish I could stand here and tell you this will be the last," said U.S. attorney James Burns when he announced Bloom's indictment last week. "I don't think it will be."
There would be yet another alderman on the list, but aging Anthony Laurino ducked a ghost-payrolling indictment due to deteriorating health. His younger wife, daughter, and son-in-law were all convicted for their no-show jobs.
Which brings up the embattled alderman with the highest profile--Edward Burke, chairman of the council's powerful Finance Committee. Laurino's daughter ghosted for the Finance Committee, but in January 1995 Burke denied any knowledge of it. He blamed her employment on former Finance Committee investigator Horace Lindsey, who happened to be dead.
Then in January of this year, former alderman Joseph Martinez, who worked for Burke's law firm, accused Burke of giving him ghost jobs on three City Council committees to avoid paying Martinez's health benefits. Martinez pleaded guilty and reimbursed the city for his salary. Burke hasn't been indicted, but he's retained former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas.
On February 17 the Sun-Times began a series of articles investigating Burke, reporting that he had been hired by Jenner & Block as cocounsel in two lawsuits. Burke, as Finance Committee chairman, had hired the firm and paid it about $8 million to represent himself and other pro-administration aldermen in the city ward remap case, which was recently resolved in their favor. The Sun-Times also noted the firm had hired Burke's daughter Jennifer as an attorney and contributed over $14,000 to his wife Anne's 1996 campaign for Illinois Appellate Court justice. Prominent Jenner partners served as her campaign treasurer and chairman. Burke soon announced his withdrawal from the cocounsel cases.
Daley responded February 24, shortly after ghost-payrolling charges against Madrzyk went public: "I'll be asking the council to make a number of changes that I think they will be willing to do." That included finally putting aldermen under the jurisdiction of the city inspector general, he said. Aldermanic reaction was predictable: They went nuts. Alderman William Beavers said it would be "like having the mayor come in and look in my kitchen to see what I've got in there to eat."
The next day Daley declared he didn't want to sound like a boss. "It's up to them," he insisted. "They have to respond to what they're doing. I have enough problems myself as mayor....I'm going to work with them, but I'm not going to dictate to them." Floor leader Huels was supposed to meet with aldermen to discuss ethics reforms.
Rules Committee chairman Richard Mell told reporters he too would be consulting with the aldermen. He claimed he favored such measures as having the council appoint its own inspector general to review employee attendance and hiring reports, barring aldermen from hiring relatives for personal staff, and even requiring committee employees to work only for the committee that hired them.
Then all was quiet. As one alderman remarked, "They're just hoping this will blow over." It didn't. The Sun-Times continued to attack Burke, reporting that he solicited and got legal work from a giant hardware company in his specialty--real estate tax assessment appeals--then voted to give the company a $2.8 million city grant.
Next came the Sun-Times story that Burke has represented four airlines, a hotel, and a car rental agency at O'Hare and Midway in such appeals, while as Finance Committee chairman he passes such things as bond issues for airport improvements. By late May the Sun-Times was reporting that Burke has filed lawsuits against the Cook County treasurer for clients seeking tax refunds from various municipalities, including Chicago. In Chicago's case, the Sun-Times wrote, Burke's lawsuits claim in part that the city's tax levy is illegal because some parts of the city budget are too vague, and that the city underestimates assets so it can assess more real estate taxes than it needs. Yet Burke's Finance Committee passes the city's tax levy ordinance before the full City Council votes on it, and as a council member Burke votes for both tax levies and city budgets--as well as the city's settlement of such lawsuits.
After being questioned by the Sun-Times, Burke said another law firm would represent his clients in the city portion of their lawsuits and he wouldn't accept fees for it. Burke claims the city isn't a party in these suits because the nominal defendant is the Cook County treasurer's office, which collects taxes and gives them to the various local governments and taxing bodies.
On June 10, the Sun-Times headline blared "Burke alters votes." It seems that after reporters informed Burke of their investigation into his law practice, Burke changed four City Council votes that affected his private clients by quietly introducing changes into the council's Journal of Proceedings at the March 19 meeting.
Burke proposes corrections to the journal at many council meetings, a formality no one pays any notice. The end of the July 13, 1995, meeting was a fine example. Most aldermen had left by the time Burke made several motions to correct the previous journals. "All those in favor of corrections to the journal, sign by saying aye," said Alderman Lorraine Dixon, who was presiding for the absent Mayor Daley. The few aldermen who remained mumbled a disinterested chorus. "Opposed?" Silence. "See, they've all come to trust me now," deadpanned Burke. "They know if I want to correct something, it must be right."
Burke's colleagues apparently still trust him, despite outraged comments after his changed votes became public. At the last meeting, the aldermen chattered so loudly during Burke's introduction of journal corrections that Alderman Burton Natarus finally asked Dixon, again presiding for Daley, to call for quiet. "Will the council please come to order," called Dixon. "Are there any questions on the corrections of the journal?" There weren't. The corrections passed unanimously.
Burke's controversial vote changes ranged from 1990 to 1993. This time, he blamed dead alderman Thomas Cullerton, then chair of the Aviation Committee. Burke claimed he'd told Cullerton to record him abstaining from the votes, though protocol is for aldermen to announce themselves before a vote if they are recusing themselves. Burke insisted he wasn't changing the votes, but merely making a correction.
"You can't go back in time to change all your votes," Daley scoffed later to reporters. The Sun-Times noted that Cullerton died three months before the last vote that Burke had changed. A handful of aldermen publicly said they would vote to oust Burke as Finance Committee chair. Meanwhile, Evans's FBI videotape was spicing up the nightly newscasts.
Suddenly, Mell announced he would hold hearings on a new ethics ordinance on June 18 and introduce it at the next council meeting, July 2. He refused to describe the new ordinance. "I am trying to get something that makes sense to my colleagues and the administration. Everybody has to be on board with this," he said.
Mell and Huels have an odd way of reaching consensus with their colleagues. In interviews just before the ethics hearings were announced, numerous aldermen ranging from the staunchest Daley allies to the most independent of opponents had heard nothing from Huels or Mell beyond brief chats in a few cases, though the two powerful chairmen had supposedly been rallying their colleagues since February. (Neither Huels nor Mell would respond to interview requests for this article. Mell still wouldn't respond after asking for and receiving written questions. After announcing the Rules Committee hearings, however, he did answer a couple of questions when cornered at council meetings.)
Asked if he'd been contacted by Mell or Huels on ethics reform, Alderman John Buchanan chortled. "Hahahahaha. Pardon me for laughing. No they haven't. There's some aldermen that are on the inside, and some of us are on the outside. Neither of the two you mentioned have discussed this with Alderman Buchanan, as Alderman Buchanan chuckled."
Even Alderman William Banks, chairman of the powerful Zoning Committee and as inside as one can get without cloning Mell or Huels, had not had any serious discussions with those two aldermen as of June 4. Asked if he thought there were any specific areas in need of new or tighter rules, Banks said, "Not offhand, I really haven't given it a look. Again, I'm open to virtually any discussion." On Mell's suggestion of a council-appointed inspector general, he said, "It seems that it was mentioned and stated and there was some conversation for about a week and then it just kinda died."
At the first hearing on the new ethics proposals on June 18, aldermen Thomas Allen, Robert Shaw, Brian Doherty, and Ray Suarez sat around a table outside the council chambers, poring over the ordinance like students cramming for a test. Why were the aldermen so unfamilar with the ordinance, if Mell had been polling them and trying to reach a consensus since February? Caught for a moment after the hearings, Mell hemmed and hawed before saying, "I have no answer for that."
Though Mell sponsored the ethics ordinance, it contained none of the proposals he advocated in February. Which is less curious than it appears, since the ordinance came directly from the Daley administration. Daley and Huels told the press what they would and wouldn't be willing to let the aldermen change. Asked before the July 2 meeting why he'd dropped his idea to have the council appoint its own inspector general to review committee time sheets and hiring reports, Mell said, "I think that this is much stronger." Asked whether the time sheets and hiring reports will be reviewed under the new ordinance, Mell said, "Boy, that's a good question. I don't know if they are or not." They're not.
The two Rules Committee hearings made it clear that the aldermen's input was a necessary evil. Shaw, who'd passed his amendment sheltering the aldermen from the inspector general in 1989 with no opposition, couldn't even get Mell to consider a minor idea like including city contractors in ethics seminars required for city workers and officials.
"Is this your ordinance?" Shaw demanded of chief assistant corporation counsel Ben Gibson after Gibson told him that contractors weren't included in the seminar requirement. Gibson had the unlucky task of answering irate aldermen at the hearings. He looks like the diminutive, cherubic Bud Cort from Harold and Maude. It was hard not to feel sorry for him.
"I wrote the ordinance," Gibson acknowledged reluctantly.
"You wrote the ordinance. Well, why didn't you include the contractors?"
"I'm not the sponsor of the ordinance; I wrote the ordinance, alderman."
"Well, who told you what to put in this ordinance?" barked Shaw.
"I certainly worked with the sponsor of the ordinance--"
"Who is the sponsor of the ordinance?"
"It was the chairman of the committee, yes," said Gibson.
"Can you add it into it?" Shaw asked Mell, who'd been watching the verbal Ping-Pong without bothering to answer a question clearly meant for him.
"Can we? No," said Mell.
"Beg your pardon?" asked Shaw, because Mell had avoided the microphone all day. He'd been asked several times already to start using it so everyone could hear him.
"Am I going to? No," said Mell.
"OK," said Shaw, suddenly calm. "So that tells us, I understand that. OK. We here wastin' our time, talkin' about ethics!" He began chuckling. One of Shaw's more endearing traits is that he seldom takes anything seriously for long. "This is a joke!"
Later, Alderman Dorothy Tillman declared she felt sorry for her colleagues because they were being forced to vote for the ordinance. Tillman, who's now close to Daley and counting on his help in a run against U.S. representative Danny Davis, still gets away with occasionally opposing Daley. After all, he doesn't need her for near-unanimous council votes, and he knows she still has to get elected in the Third Ward.
While many aldermen voiced misgivings and pushed for changes in the ordinance, Tillman was one of a handful who were downright hostile. She said the council was "bein' held hostage" and called the ordinance "plantation politics":
"And those of you who told me you don't want to vote for it but you got to, you know who you are. You go on the plantation! I'm not goin' back on the plantation, not willingly! If I go somebody gon' knock me out and drag me! And I don't intend to get knocked out."
Then she left the council chamber before the final vote, along with everyone else who opposed the ordinance. It passed 25-0.
Chicago aldermen have never been big on investigating themselves. In 1958 the Daily News's Jack Mabley described Alderman Allen Freeman, a Republican, trying to introduce a proposal to create a committee for investigations: "He was hooted down as his proposal was sent to committee for burial. 'Can't I just say "hello"?' Freeman asked plaintively as he sat."
The council's Rules Committee has always retained the right to investigate aldermen, and it's never bothered. The controversy surrounding Burke demonstrates how it operates. Burke has been the subject of several months' worth of Sun-Times articles investigating his private law practice, articles that specifically named numerous instances of alleged conflicts of interest. By mid-June, some fellow aldermen were calling for his ouster as Finance chairman. Alderman Thomas Murphy asked Rules chairman Mell to hold hearings on Burke's activities, and Mell said he'd consider it. "I will talk with the chairman of the Finance Committee and other members of the council to see what their wishes are and see if there are any violations of law or council rules," he said.
It took Mell a week to cover the same ground that the Sun-Times had covered in months. He decided Burke had broken no council rules, so no hearings were necessary. First Mell told the press that the city corporation counsel's office had given him an opinion supporting that position. Pressed by reporters, he admitted it wasn't a written opinion and added that he'd polled his colleagues and the consensus was against hearings. Acting corporation counsel Patricia Bergeson later told reporters there was no opinion at all, written or otherwise. And if Mell polled his colleagues, the canvass, again, wasn't very thorough. Joe Moore is just one alderman who says, "I wasn't polled."
Moore wasn't surprised there would be no hearings. "It sounds like Alderman Mell already determined there were no violations of the city ordinance or ethics code even before we had the hearing," he says. "The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether such a violation occurred, and it sounds like Alderman Mell put the cart before the horse. There were no violations, hence we don't have to have a hearing to determine if there are violations. A little like Alice in Wonderland, but that often occurs in the City Council."
The surprise would have been if Mell had held hearings. "I've been an observer for 30 years and there's yet to be an alderman censured even if they've gone to jail," notes former alderman Richard Simpson, now a political science professor at UIC.
Mell has promised to hold hearings in the past when headlines have blasted aldermen, and then backed off. In 1989, Zoning Committee chairman William Banks hired then-state representative James DeLeo as a committee consultant while DeLeo was indicted on federal tax charges. Banks paid him while he attended his trial.
Banks is nearly as powerful as Burke. These days, he's reportedly bucking for a promotion to Cook County treasurer, hoping to replace current treasurer Edward J. Rosewell, who was recently indicted for ghost payrolling. DeLeo is a close Banks associate who supported Mell's son-in-law, U.S. representative Rod Blagojevich, in his campaign last year against Michael Flanagan.
The Banks-DeLeo controversy came after DeLeo was identified during testimony in an Operation Greylord trial. An attorney said he paid DeLeo to deliver bribes to judges for fixing drunk-driving cases, which DeLeo denied. He was indicted July 19, 1989, for failing to report income on his 1982 tax return, income prosecutors said came from cash bribes. DeLeo listed his 1982 income as $19,448, while prosecutors charged he spent $23,000 more, and that he spent about $90,000 more than he claimed he earned between 1980 and 1982. DeLeo claimed he had an extra $100,000 from selling a ring, personal loans, and cash from friends after his parents died a few years earlier. Prosecutors pointed out that while DeLeo had a checking account, he used money orders to pay bills 142 times from 1980 through 1982.
Testimony at DeLeo's trial was conflicting, however. Former mob boss Ken Eto and one attorney testified that DeLeo took their bribes; another lawyer testified he paid DeLeo to send him clients. But undercover FBI mole Terrence Hake testified that DeLeo refused his bribes. The trial ended in a hung jury, with some jurors saying they didn't see proof that DeLeo's extra income came during 1982.
In the end, DeLeo pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor tax charge in exchange for the government not retrying the case. The misdemeanor was for claiming $1,700 in interest payments on his 1982 tax return for a loan he got for a friend's boat when the friend had actually paid the loan. The trial and misdemeanor conviction had no effect on DeLeo's political career. He was reelected the following year and moved up to the state senate in 1992. Now he's being touted as a successor to state Democratic Party chairman Gary LaPaille.
DeLeo was indicted in July, and Banks created a job for him in August to "review plan developments and zoning applications" for $2,500 a month. This being the City Council, it was not controversial that Banks had hired someone under federal indictment. The problem was that Banks kept paying DeLeo full salary during his three-week trial, when DeLeo was quite obviously busy in court.
"Frankly, I just gave it to him," Banks told the press. "It is my discretion as chairman of the committee. This was a very difficult time in the man's life. He was on trial on a federal tax charge, and I felt there was absolutely no problem with him having some time off....There's no question that Representative DeLeo is a friend of mine. Virtually everybody that works for me is somebody that I know." He told reporters there were no records detailing DeLeo's work because he wasn't required to fill out a time sheet, which was true at the time.
Mell claimed he would hold a Rules Committee hearing. Two days later, he said it didn't look like Banks had broken council rules, so he would get the corporation counsel's opinion first. Meanwhile, Banks said he'd asked the corporation counsel for an opinion. No hearings were ever held.
Banks now says that the corporation counsel issued a written opinion that "if you have time coming, of course you can take time off," which Banks says made the question moot. Banks declined to supply the opinion and said the proper procedure was to obtain it from the counsel's office. The corporation counsel's office has been looking for that opinion since June 26 and as of this week has not been able to find it. DeLeo was hired in August and went on trial in November, so he would have had to rack up three weeks of vacation time in about three months.
Asked if he would still, in light of today's ethics debate, hire someone under indictment and let them attend trial while being paid, Banks answered, "Oh yes, oh absolutely, there's no question about it. As far as I'm concerned, if a person comes to work and does the job, I don't think there's a problem. And that issue was never an issue--it was never disputed that he worked. He clearly worked; there was no question about that." Banks acknowledged there were no time sheets for DeLeo, but said, "We had enough obvious people saying his goings and comings, that was an easy one."
A week after the DeLeo story broke, Banks sponsored an ordinance requiring City Council employees to fill out time sheets. It was cosponsored by Mell, but went nowhere. The council would wait five years before passing a time-sheet ordinance.
The new ethics ordinance sounds good, at first. It gives the ethics board subpoena power to investigate aldermen and lets it impose $1,000 fines for ethics violations. A key restriction requires aldermen to recuse themselves from voting when a matter involves any person or business that has paid them "more than $2,500 for any purpose." The '87 ordinance only prohibits the aldermen from voting on matters in which they have "any economic interest distinguishable from that of the general public."
Independent aldermen Joseph Moore and Helen Shiller managed to add an amendment to the new ordinance expanding a current campaign contribution limit of $1,500 from city contractors to include all people and businesses with matters pending before the council.
But on closer inspection, the new ethics ordinance leaves too many loopholes and too many issues unaddressed. Alderman Thomas Murphy's amendment to ban all contributions from city contractors or companies associated with aldermanic spouses didn't make it. Neither did an amendment from Moore and Shiller barring the 19 committee chairmen from outside employment.
There's no guarantee the ethics board will be a tough watchdog. And, as former alderman Martin Oberman puts it, "The problem is the people getting elected to the City Council, and has been for 150 years. If a person can be involved in this type of activity and keep getting elected, there isn't much incentive to stop." Why don't convictions deter them? "Why doesn't it deter people from sticking a gun in your ribs as you walk down the street? It doesn't deter everybody."
One key change the aldermen wrested from Daley is the exclusion of anonymous complaints, which they protested would lead to such scenarios as false allegations leveled by opponents just before elections. So the complaints must be sworn, signed statements, and knowingly making false charges can be punished by a $1,000 fine.
Another concession to aldermen will make the new ordinance retroactive for only two years after its implementation on January 1, 1998. So the board won't be able to investigate any violations before January 1, 1996, and aldermen have a good six months until the ordinance takes effect to get their houses in order.
"It's a small step forward," allows former alderman Dick Simpson, who's written two reports on council reform. "The problem is still that there isn't a comprehensive reform of the total operation of the council, and our experience in general with the incremental reforms is if you adopt only one reform at a time it doesn't have enough impact to change the operations. So the council is not remarkably different than when I was an alderman 20 years ago, even with the new [ethics ordinance]....While there will be some modest improvement, it won't be enough to tilt the balance to make it a significantly better council."
Former alderman Leon Despres is even less optimistic, calling the new ordinance a "tiny" step forward. He finds the new oversight by the ethics board "meaningless" for myriad reasons. First, Despres thinks the board is "pretty much in the hands of the City Council and the mayor," since its members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the council.
Then there's the matter of the sworn complaint requirement. "The body apparently has no independent ability to investigate, because the aldermen succeeded in eliminating what they called the anonymous complaint," says Despres. "There has to be a sworn complaint. And that's not the way the FBI has succeeded."
The ethics board can't, for instance, initiate an investigation based on a newspaper series exposing countless possible ethics violations by an alderman. That means the board will have to pretend that none of its members noticed the Sun-Times series chronicling Alderman Edward Burke's business practices, unless someone goes to its office and makes a formal complaint.
And Despres notes a less-publicized option the aldermen have if the ethics board finds them guilty of a violation: they can appeal to the Rules Committee, which still has the final say. "Of course if the alderman is part of the inner family of the City Council, he'd have no trouble setting it aside," he notes.
Moore, however, isn't concerned about appeals to the Rules Committee, believing it's a safeguard against potential political abuse by the mayor's office. Any Rules Committee hearing would be public, he notes, so "there certainly would be a public spotlight shown on the allegations of misconduct, so ultimately the people themselves could decide, even if the Rules Committee decided to lift the sanction."
Cook County clerk and former alderman David Orr is skeptical about whether the ethics board will really investigate the aldermen. "I think one of the keys will be who are the people chosen [to be on the board]. It's really hard to get probably some of the people you'd want, given who controls the council. Some of the powerhouses there--would they allow a Leon Despres, people like that, to be on the board? That's a key question."
Whether a Daley-controlled ethics board will be an effective council watchdog is a fair question, regardless of aldermanic fears that Daley--or some future mayor, as the aldermen like to say--will use it against them. Until now, Daley has preferred not to have aldermen investigated. The best evidence of that is simply that Daley hasn't forced the aldermen to accept oversight authority until now. And the ethics board doesn't appear to be fulfilling what few duties it has under the 1987 ethics ordinance. The provision taking away the board's power to investigate the aldermen states, "If the Board receives a complaint alleging a violation or other misconduct by an alderman or an employee of the City Council, the Board shall, within two days after receipt thereof, transmit such complaint to the standing committee of the City Council having jurisdiction over such complaints." The ethics board has operated for a full ten years now. Yet Mell told the Sun-Times in March, "I don't think I ever got anything from the Ethics Board." And that appears to be technically true.
Dorothy Eng, the board's executive director, in an interview before Mell announced the new ordinance, said the board does not transmit complaints to the Rules Committee. Instead, she said, the board simply tells people with complaints to take them to Mell's committee. "People will come in and start complaining about an alderman who's done this and not done that, and we say, 'Go over to City Hall,'" said Eng. "Now whether or not that person went over, I don't know."
Eng said she doesn't know how many complaints the board has received against aldermen because the board doesn't keep any record. "I honestly couldn't answer that question," she said. "I can say it's not many."
"I respect Dorothy, but I think that's part of the problem," said Orr, also before the new ethics ordinance was announced. When told that Orr was surprised the board doesn't refer complaints to the Rules Committee or keep records of them, Eng said, "I'm not surprised he's surprised. David's surprised at a lot of things. I mean, I don't know what I can respond other than, we don't. As I explained before, if someone walks in the door and we refer them over, why would we keep track of that? We don't have any jurisdiction over that. So I don't know why he's surprised other than he doesn't understand what the law says."
The ethics board is, in a sense, redundant anyway. Simpson points out that citizens "could always have gone to the U.S. attorney or the state's attorney with the same complaints, and obviously the penalties are much greater than with the ethics board." That makes the ethics board, he says, just one more "investigative body citizens can bring their complaints to if they're willing to go on record with their complaint."
Despres acknowledges that it's tough to decide who should judge the aldermen. With the ethics board, "you really have two powers [the mayor and the City Council] that are naming the enforcers, neither of whom should have a say. But when you try to think who should name them, it's tough. You wouldn't want the governor to name them. It would be good if it were an independent agency--let's say if the Supreme Court named them. Not that we have such a wonderful Supreme Court....I don't know. It would be good if the authority could be appointed in such a way as to be independent of both the mayor and the City Council."
The provision requiring aldermen to recuse themselves from voting when a matter involves any person or business that has paid them more than $2,500 for any purpose isn't enough, says Orr.
"To not vote in the City Council, which is a controlled body, has little effect," Orr says. "The key leadership determines the votes; it's a totally controlled vote. So for people to act like, 'Gee, if I just say I'm not going to vote on this issue I'm resolving a possible conflict of interest,' is not going nearly far enough....It doesn't matter whether you withhold your vote."
The campaign finance reform doesn't impress Simpson either. "People with contracts with City Hall already [are restricted], so it will affect some people with pending contracts, but that number is relatively small," he says. According to Simpson, the new restriction won't even the playing field between challengers and incumbents in aldermanic races--that would take public financing of campaigns and free cable TV time.
Martin Oberman says the restriction on those with pending contracts is progress--"that's the time to ban them, when they're pending"--but he doesn't think the new limitation ultimately will mean much. "You really should take contributions completely away from people who have business with the city, or will have, or have gotten city largesse. It's just a wide-open invitation to influence peddling if you don't."
"It's legalized bribery, the system of campaign financing we have now," says the Better Government Association's Bruner. "And that's what's happening in the City Council right now."
At the June 20 Rules Committee hearing, Alderman Robert Shaw badgered chief assistant corporation counsel Ben Gibson about the $1,500 campaign contribution limit.
"Now, but the problem with that," Shaw told Gibson, "and you know how to get around that, counselor, and they get around that all the time; they go and get the brother-in-law and the sister-in-law over here to give the money and circumvent this ordinance. Isn't that right? Do it all the time, right? In the law firms."
Shaw was referring to the fact that law firms can give the maximum contribution while individual lawyers in the firm can each give it as well. The only catch is that the ethics reforms passed in 1989 stopped firms from reimbursing employees for campaign contributions. Getting a little testy, Gibson simply repeated the ordinance's provision on contributions.
"Well, let me give you an example," Shaw drawled. "Maybe you don't understand me, counselor. Let's take Shaw and Shaw law firm"--a hypothetical entity that provoked laughter from Shaw's colleagues--"Shaw and Shaw law firm. Shaw, the head of the law firm, donates $1,500. All right, the firm cannot give any more. Is that correct?"
"Well, again, under what...these are very precise questions....What circumstances are you talking about, where the firm has been retained by the city?"
"The firm is doin' business with the city, yes. That's the only reason we would raise this question."
"If they had business with the city they'd be limited to $1,500."
"$1,500. Now let's say that lawyer Tillman works for the, is employed by Shaw and Shaw law firm, not a partner. Would lawyer Tillman be precluded from donatin' $1,500?"
"You're saying from her own personal funds, that's what you're referring to? Right, right, that's correct, alderman."
"And anyone in that law firm could donate $1,500, is that correct?"
"Again, if it's with their personal funds, yes."
"All right, the same firm. But you're circumventing the ordinance at this point here."
"No, they couldn't be reimbursed by the firm," said Gibson.
"People aren't lookin' for any reimbursement!" hooted Shaw. "They're gettin' their reimbursement when they get the contract from the city! They got their reimbursement! But there's nothin' in here to deal with that....This ordinance is a charade as written! And it does not cover everybody in this town."
Anonymous complaints are another sticky point. At the hearings, Alderman Bernard Stone wanted to know if he wrote an anonymous complaint, "in crayon incidentally in big block letters," would the board investigate? Gibson tried concentrating on the idea that the board would have to independently verify any allegations in an anonymous complaint, but that didn't satisfy Stone. "Why would you waste your investigator's time investigating a complaint from an anonymous accuser who may be motivated by politics, by business purposes, or election--you'll end up with a hundred complaints at election time because everyone who wants to at least throw a cloud of suspicion over the incumbent will file a complaint and do it anonymously!" he insisted.
Mell at first pointed out that people can make anonymous complaints to the police or the building department, but quickly agreed that someone could make a complaint just before an election and then charge that the alderman was under investigation. Stone won--anonymous complaints were dropped.
Simpson thinks barring anonymous complaints will have a chilling effect. "Most people are not going to want to be known to have complained about aldermen, particularly city workers who might have the information or people involved in the political process more closely. Maybe precinct captains or others close enough to see the violations." The sworn complaint system, says Simpson, will only work in cases such as "if an alderman tries to shake down businessmen in his community to get contributions. At that point, they might be angry enough to complain in some cases. But most businessmen won't, because there are too many [city] inspectors."
Simpson dismisses Stone's argument that aldermen would never dare retaliate against someone making a complaint, fearing bad publicity. "No, most aldermen would be very angry about any complaint and would use all the power they had access to to try and get the witness to withdraw the complaint," says Simpson dryly.
But the aldermen's greatest fear by far is giving power over themselves to the executive branch through the ethics board. As Alderman Dorothy Tillman put it at the hearings, "I think one of the things that keeps this city goin' and make us different is that we do have a balance of power. Even those who are rubber stamps, at least let 'em ask for the rubber, don't give it to 'em!" Laughter egged her on. "You know, let 'em come and say, 'Can I borrow your stamp today?' 'Yessir, take it.'"
Alderman Sam Burrell was in a darker mood. "One of the articles of the U.S. Constitution, there's a protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Now last night I had nightmares of people goin' through my garbage, stalking my house.... I really didn't get any sleep." That got some laughs too, though Burrell actually did look frightened.
Despres agrees that the ethics board can be "used to whip a minority."
"You see, if the City Council can find the slightest misstep by an opposition alderman, it can really use this to whip him, to belabor him, to discredit him or her. And so a minority alderman or alderwoman could live in the shadow of it. You see, an opposition alderman generally doesn't take bribes and doesn't engage in conflict of interest, but there are so many ways you can make a misstep of procedure that the majority might abuse the ordinance by filing complaints."
"Because of the need to have separation of power, the aldermen should have a true ethics committee, which they don't, and police themselves in the way the Congress is supposed to do," says Simpson. "Congress hasn't been exemplary, but better than the Chicago City Council."
Simpson appreciates the aldermanic fear of mayoral power. "When I was alderman, [Richard J.] Daley had me spied on by the Red Squad, as he did Despres and a bunch of others, so there's, in Chicago's history, there is a history of the mayors using the police department and other units of government to spy on public officials."
"It's sort of crazy," says one alderman who spoke anonymously. "We already have an executive branch that chooses our leadership, tells you what committees you're on, tells us when meetings are, and furthermore they'll have the power to investigate you. It doesn't fit any of the textbook definitions of how government's supposed to work in a democracy, or at least what the relationship's supposed to be between the three branches. You have a legislative branch with virtually no independence."
At the June 18 Rules Committee hearing, Shaw peppered Gibson and ethics board director Dorothy Eng with questions about the mayor's control of the board. Setting a pattern for much of the hearing, Gibson and Eng did an admirable job of appearing to misunderstand Shaw's questions. Shaw is usually longwinded enough to totally obscure the point of his oratory, but his questions this day were quite obvious.
"Let me ask you this question then," he said to Gibson. "Do you know of any other city in America where the executive branch of government would have this kind of control over the legislative branch of government? Do you know of any other city in America?"
"Um, I, I, I'm not sure I understand the question, under the scheme--" Gibson began.
"Let me repeat it so you can understand it; I know you a lawyer and you're very analytical," said Shaw. "As I understand it, under this proposal, the executive branch of government would appoint these members as they do now. The only difference, uh, in the future as opposed to, apparently this board does not have, the current board does not have the authority to investigate members of the City Council. Is that correct?"
"Under the new proposal this board would have the authority to investigate members of the City Council. Is that correct?"
"Now, do you know of any other city in America where this occurs?"
"Alderman, under the existing law, the Board of Ethics is a body that is subject to mayoral nomination--" Gibson tried.
"Counsel, that is not the question," Shaw barked. "The question is, do you know of any other city in America? That's the question."
"Just so I understand, alderman, the question is, is there any other city in America that has investigatory power over city council members or elected officials?" asked Eng, who looked befuddled by every question she was asked that day.
"If you know of any other...where the executive branch investigates members of the legislative branch," said Shaw.
"Well I'm not sure what you mean by executive branch," said Eng after much dithering, though most people understand it means Mayor Daley. She then named a string of cities where ethics boards investigate elected officials, without noting whether the boards are appointed by mayors.
"With the exception of Los Angeles, is it correct that only the city of Los Angeles has an ethics board similar to what's bein' proposed here, where the executive branch could investigate the legislative branch, only Los Angeles?" Shaw demanded.
"Is it only Los Angeles? No, I just said--" started Eng.
"I heard what you said, but, now, we wasn't talkin' about boards--"
"You're talking about the chief executive appointing," said Mell, who thankfully got tired of the cat-and-mouse game. "I think the answer could be considered no."
Shaw wasn't quite finished. He asked Gibson whether he thought allowing the executive branch to investigate the legislative branch via the ethics board might cause a problem for independent aldermen. No, said Gibson, because the council could choose not to confirm the board members or executive director.
"How long have you been a part of this government, counsel?" asked Shaw.
"Uh, since 1991," said a wary Gibson.
"Since 1991? How many rejections have you seen since 1991?"
"Since 1991?" Gibson asked.
"Of any appointee here," Shaw nodded.
"I don't have an exact number," said Gibson uncomfortably as giggling filled the council chambers.
"Do you have any?" asked Shaw.
"Not many, but occasionally there are cases where somebody withdraws his name."
"Oh, withdraws their name," Shaw scoffed, his point made.
Then there's a whole passel of issues the new ethics ordinance doesn't address at all. A few:
The bloated council committee system. Chicago's City Council boasts 19 committees, and only misses having the highest number of committees of any municipal body in the nation because New York, with over twice the population of Chicago, has 20. This year, Chicagoans will pay $4.5 million to support the committee system. Council observers routinely note that nearly half the committees could be cut. No one even tries to defend them.
During Council Wars, the committees ballooned to 37. Oberman, then an alderman, wrote a council reform report calling the committees the "worst rip-off since the Purolator heist." Mayor Daley advocated reducing the number of committees during his 1989 mayoral campaign, but his initial council reorganization only cut the Land Aquisitions Committee. The number went down to 19 in 1991. That was possible because eight committee chairmen left that year, either voluntarily or through the ballot box. Two more chairmen left the council in 1995, but their committees stayed.
Not only does no one review committee time sheets and hiring reports, but chairmen can spend their budgets any way they want. The new ordinance details how committee contingency expense allowances can be spent, but those rules don't apply to the bulk of the committee budget, says Gibson.
Committee budgets should be itemized, says Moore. Right now, a committee's entire budget is listed in a few line items in the annual city budget. Moore points to the 1997 budget entry for the Rules Committee: staff, $123,343; contractual services, $2,000; commodities and materials, $500; total, $125,843. "That's a lot of people making a lot of money," says Moore, "and the City Council Committee on Rules rarely meets, and when they do, it's to discuss appointing this person to the ethics board or whatever."
Public accessibility. Chicagoans still can't watch council meetings on public access cable. "They've had cable television set up for about five years, and they refuse to turn on the switch," says Simpson, whose two council reform reports in 1972 and 1989 called for regulary scheduled and televised meetings, as well as having legislation permanently numbered and described in the council's Journal of Proceedings. Legislation and aldermanic voting records are still nearly impossible for a typical citizen to follow. "They now number the legislation but they don't use that number in the [journal]," says Simpson, "so tracking legislation is not easy, and tracking votes takes about a hundred person-hours a year because of the way they do the journal." In his 1989 report, Simpson pointed out how the journal described the May 1973 meeting when antiadministration aldermen introduced a resolution ordering Mayor Daley to explain how his sons had gotten city insurance contracts: "Referred: PROPOSED RESOLUTION FOR ACCOUNTABILITY BY CITY OFFICIAL."
Nepotism. Committee chairmen can't hire their own relatives, but they can hire other aldermen's relatives, and all aldermen can hire relatives for their personal staffs. This issue doesn't excite people much, but some, like independent aldermen Moore and Shiller, do think committees should be free of relatives because of the potential for ghost payrolling.
Personal staffs concern Moore less, because there are only three staffers per alderman and they're highly visible to the public. Still, he says, "My guess is that that sort of thing should be banned. There are plenty of qualified people out there who aren't related to aldermen who can do the jobs that aldermen need done. I've been able to find very capable people to work for me, and none of them are related to any elected official much less an alderman."
Others disagree, vehemently. Alderman William Beavers, whose daughter is his chief of staff, never shies from stating political realities: "You know, if you go back to the old man Daley, he said if you can't help your own, who can you help? Some people misuse anything, but I don't see nothin' wrong with hiring your relatives--if they work. Why should I change the game when I get in it? My daughter works every day, she's qualified, she's a college graduate, and how do you teach somebody the political game if they're not involved in it? Everybody else raised their family under their political institutions, they want to change it when I get in. They want to change it when black people get in. The Irish took care of their kids, grandkids and great-great-grandkids. Now I hire my daughter and they say it's wrong, but I don't care."
Resources for antiadministration aldermen. In his council reform reports, Simpson advocated giving more resources to antiadministration aldermen to allow them to gather the information necessary to question legislation put forth by the mayor and to help research their own legislation. Now, says Simpson, "it's a little better" because all aldermen have a slightly bigger budget to hire aldermanic staff. "So aldermen that want can assign a staff member to do some research, have a legislative aide. But they can only have one and still keep an aldermanic office running, and they may well have to raise outside funds from the community if they do much in the way of legislative research," he says.
The few opposition aldermen on the council today agree resources are still a problem. "That's right," says Moore. "On any citywide issue I do my own research, my own press releases, my own everything. If you had the kind of resources that the Finance Committee chairman does, you can act like a coequal branch of government that acts as a check on the executive branch. But the Finance chair has chosen not to do that. None of us [opposition aldermen] are committee chairs, none of us have huge staff allotments or expense accounts, so we don't have time to be able to do all this." Before the June 18 Rules Committee hearing on the new ethics ordinance, Moore was xeroxing copies of his proposed amendment for his colleagues and the press. Burke has his own press aide to pass out his numerous press releases.
"A lot of things you want to find you have to rely on the Legislative Reference Bureau, and they're a small-staffed office," says Alderman Brian Doherty. "You've got 50 aldermen relying on them; most of your staff are employed doing the routine stuff people expect from aldermen, from permits to zoning, signage, permit parking. And if you don't take care of those matters, you're not gonna be here for too long. It's hard to get the research done. We have to rely on interns and people who are looking for school projects."
"The real problem," says Simpson, "is in other legislative bodies the research is done primarily by committee staff, but in the City Council the committee staff are just the appointees of chairmen and do not do research, particularly if it's going to be oppositional research that could bring up issues the chair or administration don't want brought up." Instead of letting the committee chairs appoint all the staff, he says, "the minority should be able to appoint one or more staff on each committee to do research for them."
Forcing votes and committee hearings. Alderman Burton Natarus chairs the Traffic Committee, which typically deals with stop signs and requests for handicapped parking. But he recently sent the Traffic Committee his own proposed ordinance to increase fines for not cleaning up after your dog. "Now I don't want anyone to question the jurisdiction," he warned his colleagues. "I'm being very selfish. I'm sending it to my committee because I know I'm gonna give it a hearing. I've sent it to many many committees of the City Council, and it's sat there for years."
As Simpson noted in one of his council reform reports, there is no mechanism for aldermen to force a hearing on an issue because "to do so would open up the legislative process to deliberation, persuasion, and reason." And if a relatively staunch Daley ally like Natarus can't get a hearing, opponents don't have a chance. Technically, aldermen can get an ordinance discharged from a committee and voted on in the council after the ordinance has been there for over 60 days, but the council must approve that with 26 votes. "I've never seen one pass," says Simpson. "If the mayor or somebody wanted to discharge" an ordinance from a committee, he notes, it would already have been done. "That means that at least as long as there's a majority willing to go along with the mayor, they can squelch a good bit of debate and discussion."
Making the Aldermen Full-Time. "I actually think that until the City Council is really a full-time body that we won't be able to deal with a lot of the ethics issues," says Shiller. "The City Council's knee-jerk reaction is to become more prosecutorial when there's a problem, when it seems to me the kind of problem we're talking about is structural. So let's talk about changing the institutional structure that allows [ethics violations]. The essence is people get confused about their public and private interests, so let's start there. Let's start with the income people have and where their loyalties get divided, so it's logical to start by saying every alderman has to be full-time. You cannot do business. Just like we do when we hire someone in a position of responsibility in the city. The [department heads] aren't allowed to have second jobs, why should the aldermen?"
It's not a bad idea, says Despres, "but very difficult to enforce. You have one alderman who turns down a salaried position somewhere, and another alderman who doesn't have any other job who spends half the day buying and selling his stocks and bonds. But it does seem exaggerated to pay an alderman $75,000 and then let him hold down another job. For $75,000, an alderman should be giving pretty good service."
Simpson isn't sure full-time aldermen would make much difference. "It's certainly true a lot of conflicts do occur with outside employment, but full-time aldermen are equally crooked," he says, noting that it wouldn't stop aldermen from taking bribes. "It's still conceivable that you could have an outstanding lawyer or educator or whatever that would be a good addition to the City Council, but who would want to continue in their professional life," he adds.
Aldermen who already work the job full-time insist it takes all their attention. Alderman Ricardo Munoz says he can't even imagine how anyone finds time to chair a committee, much less work another job. Bernard Stone is more typical of his colleagues. He hasn't practiced law in 15 years, he says, but "why should I comment because what decision I reach on a personal basis I don't want to put on someone else....The so-called conflicts or appearance of conflict, that's gonna exist anyway--they'll say the guy's a second cousin twice removed. We don't live in vacuums, and because we don't live in vacuums we have friends, we have relatives, people we've met over the course of the years. We're going to be accused of conflicts whether we have conflicts or not."
Many, of course, don't expect any ethics ordinance to substantially change the council. "It was a lot worse in years past, but you have to have a certain amount of self-enforcement for any ethics law to work, like any other law," says Oberman. "I think most of the problem now stems from illegal activity. You don't need another law that says illegal twice."
"Is there a seriousness about changing behavior," asks Orr, "or is this just another attempt to pass a law and hope no one looks at it? Because it appears the council had the authority and power all these years to do something about the allegations we're talking about, be it through the Rules Committee or wherever." He points to the aldermen's response when it became public that Streeter had worn a wire for the FBI to inform on his colleagues. Most were more outraged over the wire than Streeter's corruption. "That's where we really need to make a difference. This is not at all secretive. This stuff couldn't happen if good people and not-so-good people didn't feign ignorance and close their eyes and turn away."
Toward the end of the Rules Committee hearings on the new ordinance, Alderman Ginger Rugai asked "if anyone believes that this ordinance, this reform, will in fact limit, restrict, stop anyone who has dishonesty in their heart."
"Now time will tell," answered Mell. "Somebody I talked to said you'll know if it works if an alderman doesn't go to jail in five years. I mean that's kind of scary but I mean..." he trailed off.
"No one in the real world expects the council to investigate itself. It will be up to the federal and state authorities," said Orr after the council passed the 1987 ethics ordinance. City ethics penalties will never have much bite anyway because local ordinances can't impose criminal penalties. Federal and state laws can, so the ethics ordinance can only grow teeth if it's used by the U.S. attorney or state's attorney.
"Most of the cases of corruption, in fact I would suggest all, that have been brought against aldermen in the last 20 years, have been brought by the federal government," says Michael Lyons, chief investigator for the Better Government Association. In fact, the U.S. attorney's office has done so well chasing council members that aldermen use it as an excuse to avoid oversight by any other agency. Alderman Sam Burrell echoed many of his colleagues at the June 20 Rules Committee hearing when he opposed ethics board oversight because, he declared, "My thinkin' is that we do have that person or that agency in place already. It's the U.S. attorney. At this time it's Jim Burns, who really we should be givin' him a resolution for a fantastic job that he's doin'."
But the state's attorney's office hasn't taken a step toward the aldermen. "There's no question in the last 10, 15, 20 years that the state's attorney has simply lacked the will to make political corruption cases," says Lyons. "There are other high-profile, appealing cases upon which reelection cases can be built, which are seductive....If they want to pursue corruption, first Chicago is very fertile ground, and they have the legal tools now. It comes down to political will."
Often, Lyons notes, the state's attorney points to the U.S. attorney's federal wiretap abilities as a reason to leave local investigations to that office. "Do I think wiretaps would enhance their arsenal?" he says. "Absolutely, but they've shown no particular willingness to go after it in any case."
"We've never had a state's attorney that's made an attempt to police local government," says Oberman. He claims Burke's alleged conflicts of interests are violations of state law. "The notion that Burke's activity doesn't violate state law is wrong, I think," he says. "There is a state conflict-of-interest law that prohibits any elected official from having an interest in what he's voting on, which I think covers this." Simpson says if Burke "does have a true economic benefit from his individual vote, that's not [a violation of] the ethics code, that's what Tom Keane and the other aldermen went to jail for."
Burke and all aldermen owe the city a fiduciary duty according to the 1987 ethics ordinance, meaning that the city's interests override, for instance, the interests of an alderman's private law client. If Burke broke his fiduciary duty by representing clients in tax levy cases, he may have violated the state's official misconduct law. That law reads in part that a public official commits misconduct when he or she "intentionally or recklessly fails to perform any mandatory duty as required by law." First, though, Burke's activity would have to be ruled a breach of fiduciary duty, and then the city's fiduciary duty would have to count as a "mandatory duty."
At the June 18 Rules Committee hearing, Alderman Moore tried asking Gibson whether the aldermen's fiduciary duty was a mandatory duty, but Gibson refused to venture an opinion. "Well, let me just ask you," Moore continued, "if, for example, an elected official, an alderman, represents clients in litigation that attacks a tax levy, challenges in court a tax levy, out of which the city would receive proceeds, would you consider that a breach of fiduciary duty?" Gibson wouldn't answer that either, because he guessed that it applied to a specific case.
State's attorney spokesman Robert Benjamin says that the aldermen's fiduciary duty is not a mandatory duty, because "the mandatory duty is something that requires you to affirmatively do something, like file an ethics statement."
Moore disagrees. "The official misconduct statute in and of itself doesn't have any mandatory duties. It simply states, if I recall, you can be prosecuted for violations of your city ordinance or any laws that govern conduct of officials. Otherwise it has no meaning. Why is that statute in place if it can't be enforced?"
Under the 1987 ethics ordinance, an alderman is also prohibited from making decisions in which he has any economic interest. If it was found that Burke violated that provision when he voted on matters involving clients, he may have violated state law on interest in contracts. Under the Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act, an elected official may not have an interest, "either directly or indirectly, in his own name or in the name of any other person, association, trust or corporation, in any contract or the performance of any work in the making or letting of which such officer may be called upon to act or vote." Those are Class 4 felonies, and the penalty includes removal from office.
Asked if voting on issues in which an alderman had a financial interest would be a violation of state law, Benjamin said he couldn't comment because the answer would change on a case-by-case basis.
Is the state's attorney's office looking at allegations against Alderman Burke?
"No comment." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): cover photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.