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Opinion: Entire Aldermanic Oversight Process Shrouded in Secrecy

Latest Legislative Inspector General report offers little information on Council ethics

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    NEWSLETTERS

    If there’s one thing that can be taken away from the latest release of the Office of Legislative Inspector General’s semi-annual report, it’s this:

    If you didn't know any better, you might think every aspect of City Council oversight in this town is intended to be kept secret from the public.
    Want proof? Take a look at the report itself. While there’s been much discussion of late about what the OLIG should and shouldn't be investigating, whether Inspector General Faisal Khan is doing a good job or whether there should even be a legislative IG office at all, the report lays bare the very kinds of restraints OLIG and its sister agency, the Board of Ethics, currently operate under.
    The latest report lists 57 complaints of wrongdoing by Council members or employees the OLIG received in the first six months of this year, comprised of 229 separate allegations. It also indicates 57 investigations were undertaken during the period, of which 19 were referred to other agencies, such as the U.S. Attorney’s office, and 4 were considered “completed” by being sent to the Board of Ethics for further action.
    What it doesn't list, however, is the name of any alderman or employee accused of wrongdoing, under investigation or whose case has been turned over to a higher authority for further investigation or a ruling.
    Talk to most alderman, and they’ll tell you that’s how it should be. No one, they argue, should have their name made public simply because there’s an investigation under way. Or because someone felt strongly enough about possible wrongdoing to sign a sworn complaint.  
    And while that argument may have some merit, it makes less sense once you realize that the rules for almost every other aspect of Council oversight are designed in such a way that even if someone is found guilty of wrongdoing by a city watchdog, the public is unlikely to ever know about it.
    Let’s start with the OLIG itself. By statute, it’s prohibited from ever releasing the name of any alderman or employee with a compaint filed against them, who's under investigation or whose case has been referred to another agency. That’s because when it created the office, aldermen wrote the law explicitly prohibiting the OLIG from telling the public what it was doing in those regards.
    What the OLIG does do, however, is refer cases with merit to the Board of Ethics for further review. And the Board, by ordinance, must either find the case has no grounds or rule on the charges of wrongdoing by levying a fine or discipline.
    Yet, since the OLIG was created in 2011, only one case referred to the BOE by the OLIG has ever come back with a ruling, one way or the other.
    Actually, much like the City Council’s Rules Committee—which is often called the place where good legislation goes to die—the BOE could be considered the place where charges of Council wrongdoing go to disappear.
    Consider this: over the past 25 years, 31 alderman have served jail time, yet not once has the Board of Ethics found an alderman guilty of breaking the law, despite Mayor Emanuel’s highly-publicized efforts at “reforming” the Board.
    Even worse, the Board of Ethics operates under a veil of secrecy that runs at odds with its stated mission as an ethics watchdog. The only mention of the BOE’s ability or responsibility to inform the public of charges of Council wrongdoing in the most recently published Rules and Regulations is a general paragraph requiring confidentiality of Board investigations and vague promises to make opinions and rulings “publicly available in the manner it determines.”
    There’s only one problem: the Board hasn't issued a public report since 2009. So there’s no way for the public to know what the Board’s been doing since then. Or if its ruled one way or the other on any cases of potential wrongdoing.
    The Board also serves as a place where aldermen, employees, lobbyists, attorneys and others can phone up and receive “informal advisory opinions” on how the BOE works and the laws governing aldermanic wrongdoing from BOE staff members (Section 3-2 of the BOE Rules). Such an opportunity not only allows someone to better understand the law, but also conceivably offers information on a “hypothetical” situation an individual could use to avoid investigation.
    These informal advisory opinions are, of course, kept confidential.
    So, to sum up: the OLIG can investigate, but can't rule on wrongdoing or name anyone accused or investigated. The Board of Ethics is responsible for resolving qualified cases, but doesn't follow up—and if it did, doesn't feel it has to tell the public what happened. And, as part of it’s mission, the Board believes its job is to provide confidential advice to alderman on how to interpret the laws on such topics as campaign finance, abuse of power, conflicts of interest and more. 
    The truth is, according to the way the system is set up, a sitting alderman could conceivably be accused of wrongdoing, investigated, kicked upstairs to another agency, found guilty, fined or disciplined, and yet nothing would ever have to be said in public about the matter.
    Worse, an alderman could have violated ethical standards or broken the law, and nothing might ever be done about it.
    That’s what passes for transparency and accountability when it comes to the Chicago City Council.