In the ongoing battle over ethics reform in the Chicago City Council, there are two facts you should know:
One, a lot of sitting alderman in the Chicago City Council really do not like Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan.
And two, questions over who holds the power to investigate ethics violations in City Council should have nothing to do with who’s currently sitting in the Legislative Inspector General’s office.
Yet, talk to a number of aldermen, and you’ll hear the same refrain, over and over: As far as Khan goes, they think he’s bungled the job from the start. He leaks too much secret information about ongoing investigations. He spends far too much money for too little results.
And, more importantly, the stuff he’s investigating is penny-ante stuff no one should worry about.
Take a look at the history of how the City of Chicago Office of Legislative Inspector General was created, however—and how it’s been opposed by some Council members from the beginning—and you’ll see a much deeper pattern than simply a personality conflict or reasonable questions over how someone does their job.
In fact, from Day One, the City Council as a whole has dragged its feet and even fought outright against the kind of robust oversight functions an empowered inspector general would bring.
In other words: It ain’t Faisal Khan alderman don't like. It's the very idea of an office charged with robust oversight of Council activities and whatever it is alderman may do behind closed doors.
Let’s start with the way the law authorizing the Office of Legislative Inspector General was written. Unlike the vast majority of similar offices around the country, in order for the OLIG to open an investigation, they must first have received a signed and sworn complaint from someone charging wrongdoing.
That means someone has to rat out a sitting alderman—someone very likely to work for the alderman or engage in city or neighborhood business with him or her—by detailing a specific complaint and signing their name to it for all to see.
Talk about a chilling effect on openness and transparency. Not to mention the ability for aldermen to game the system.
How about the fact that the budget for the OLIG is determined at the whim of the City Council itself? Or that the OLIG doesn't have subpoena powers to compel witnesses in an investigation, unlike the city’s other Inspector General, Joe Ferguson. Or that the office has no legal mechanism to compel the disclosure of documents or personnel records from City departments.
Nevertheless, all of these roadblocks and barriers to Council accountability and transparency haven't stopped some alderman from trying to get rid of the OLIG, further water down its authority or take a peek inside at what the office has been investigating.
For example, a number of alderman were opposed to the idea of an ethics watchdog from the beginning. That’s why then-alderman Dick Mell (33) and Finance Committee chair Ed Burke (14), along with a coterie of “veteran aldermen
” worked out the details of how the office was going to be set up under the watchful eye
of Mayor Daley’s people, just to make sure the office was set up to the liking of Council members and folks on the 5th
floor of City Hall.
In 2012, when the OLIG asked Council members for their employees’ time sheets
to investigate potential payroll padding, many aldermen simply ignored his request.
At the time, Ald. Carrie Austin (34th
) perhaps summed it up best
when she said “I’m not gonna comply….Ain’t nobody gonna just tell me what to do.”
In 2013, in an effort to empower the office, members of the Progressive Reform Caucus introduced a series of ordinances designed to expand the OLIG’s authority, including giving it subpoena power. Those efforts remain buried
in the Council’s Rules Committee.
That same year, a group of 11 other alderman made a run at getting rid of the office by introducing an ordinance
calling for hearings on whether to eliminate the OLIG due to budget constraints, specifically the “throes of a severe and well-documented financial crisis that necessitates difficult choices on how [the City] allocates it’s resources.”
While that plan went nowhere, in 2014 a more concerted effort to “investigate the investigator” was proposed. As part of a request for additional funding from the OLIG’s office, Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40) and others came up with an idea some felt could help the Council as a whole get on board with authorizing more money for the office: get an outside firm to perform an audit of the OLIG to make sure it was doing its job properly.
The only problem was, the audit plan from the outside firm of Crowe Horwath, parts of which have been shared with Ward Room, proposed digging deep into the OLIG’s records and operations, including the “availability, format and location of OLIG investigation reports and supporting records”, along with the number of complaints, investigations and completed files by the OLIG and other information.
For his part, Ald. O’Connor says the effort was a sincere plan to provide support to the OLIG’s efforts.
“The audit was a mechanism that he agreed to do with us,” O’Connor told Ward Room. “It would basically be an independent voice that would say you are doing your job, which would then be something that the City Council, even the reluctant members, would say now we don’t have any justification not to give him the money. It was a mechanism to help him.”
Inspector Khan says he never agreed to an audit, and argued in a letter to Ald. Michelle Harris (8) that the move was an illegal attempt to uncover specifics about what his office was working on. O’Connor points out that if confidentiality was a problem, Khan could simply agree to having the names of individuals redacted in any reports.
There seems little doubt Kahn has made some missteps in fulfilling his role, particularly around issues such as hiring former political workers
on his staff.
But the next time you hear someone say that the problems with ethical oversight of the City Council are because the person they hired isn't right for the job, ask yourself a simple question:
What would it take for the City Council to find someone who was right for the job?