A lot of people—including members of the Chicago City Council and some political reporters about town—would have you believe that today’s move in City Council to return the responsibility for investigating aldermanic campaign finance violations to the Chicago Board of Ethics is nothing more than a power struggle between aldermen and Faisal Khan, the city’s Legislative Inspector General.
Opinion: Latest Council Move on Campaign Finance a Disgrace
Aldermen voted 41-6 to allow the Board of Ethics to review campaign finances
Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014 Updated at 5:13 PM CST
It’s not. But it is an embarrassment and a disgrace, and one more indication that the Chicago City Council has absolutely no interest in real reform or in even playing by the minimum rules necessary for transparent and effective government.
Let’s review. For years, the responsibility for investigating campaign finance violations committed by sitting City Council members fell to the Chicago Board of Ethics. As part of that responsibility, the Board regularly reviewed campaign finance disclosure reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. It then investigated violations it found, and published an annual report detailing allegations and resolutions.
But in 2009, the Board of Ethics stopped publicly reporting on it’s activities, so no ability currently exists for the public to determine how many aldermanic campaign finance investigations by the Board have happened since then. The Board has said it doesn't have the resources to do the job properly, and since it stopped, a backlog of cases has built up, unresolved.
As part of an overhaul of the city’s ethics laws initiated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel after he came into office, in 2012 the job of campaign finance violations was given to the Office of Legislative Inspector general, headed up by Khan. However, the new rules only allows the OLIG to investigate campaign finance violations if someone filed a formal complaint with the Inspector’s office.
In other words, the OLIG has to sit and wait for someone to drop a dime on a sitting alderman, and then it can only investigate the initial allegations before turning it back over to the Board of Ethics for further resolution.
So, to sum up: before today’s Council action, a backlog of unresolved campaign finance violations has been sitting unattended for years, and the office currently responsible for campaign finance violations could neither look at the old cases or proactively review campaign finance disclosure forms for new violations.
Given the Chicago City Council’s reputation for corruption, does that sound like an effective system for ferreting out campaign finance wrongdoing?
Realizing that there was a gaping hole in the city’s ethics rules surrounding campaign finance, the Mayor’s Council floor leader, Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) came up with a solution: Let’s give the responsibility back to the office that couldn’t handle it before—the Board of Ethics.
As a result, the Council voted 41-6 today to accept O’Connor’s solution. There’s only one problem: the Board doesn’t want the job:
“The Office of Legislative Inspector general has the authority to investigate only matters in which it has received signed and sworn complaints,” [Board of Ethics Chairman Stephen] Beard wrote in March 7 letter to the mayor and aldermen. “Many years of investigating campaign contribution matters have taught us that property enforcing those laws is a pro-active business — it requires that investigators be able to comb through contribution and other government records and then initiate investigations, not sit and wait for such complaints to come in.”
In the days and weeks leading up to today’s move, some alderman have been painting the issue in the press as little more than a power struggle with alderman on one side and the OLIG on the other. The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that many aldermen are “furious” at Kahn, believing he overstepped his boundaries in asking for two years’ worth of time sheets for their full- and part-time City Council employees, along with any other attempts by Khan to do his job:
They are equally upset about Khan’s decision to go public about prior investigations of aldermen they consider “penny ante” and about the legislative IG’s decision to let his chief of staff take a 10-week leave of absence to work on a legislative campaign.
“He came in with one attitude and, now that he’s in the job, he has changed faces,” Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) said. “The question that I asked when we hired him was, ‘Are you gonna be like [city Inspector General Joe] Ferguson with the, ‘I got you [mentality]?’ Thus far, that’s what he’s been. . . . He thinks he has [authority] over any and everything and listens at nothing.”
It’s also very convenient that two alderman—O’Connor and Joe Moore (49th)—took to the pages of the Chicago Tribune this morning to declare the Council is a paragon of reform and virtue, without ever mentioning the campaign finance violations issue even once.
Elsewhere, however, O’Conner told WLS-89 how he really feels about the problem:
“This is a fake issue,” O’Connor responded. “This is only about people who have contributed to a campaign account who have over-contributed or it shouldn’t have been contributed because they’re in a category that doesn’t allow them to contribute.”
In other words, the very reasons why someone would want to investigate such violations in the first place.
The truth is, it’s time for the Council to stop pussyfooting around and looking for scapegoats to blame it’s own cowardice on. By failing to authorize a robust, proactive mechanism to investigate campaign finance violations, the Council is sending a very clear message about it how views the matter at all.
And that message is: how dare anyone try and find out what we’re doing behind the scenes?