Right now, chances are someone, somewhere is writing a check for political donation to a Chicago politician.
And, both today and for the foreseeable future, chances are almost guaranteed that no one in Chicago—no government agency, watchdog, regulator or inspector general—is examining whether that donation violates campaign finance laws.
That’s not to say that there aren't government agencies who are, at least on paper, charged with the responsibility of overseeing potential campaign finance violations. Or reform-minded city officials and administrators who believe strongly that watching over political donations are a requirement for open and transparent government. Because there are.
But the reality is that each of the three main municipal agencies best positioned or charged with campaign finance oversight—the Office of Legislative Inspector General, the Chicago Board of Ethics and the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General—are either prohibited by law from doing the job, have publicly said they don't want the responsibility or have consistently run into political and administrative roadblocks that keep them from being effective.
As a result, for all intents and purposes campaign finance in Chicago is a completely unregulated activity for any branch of government today.
Take the Office of Legislative Inspector General, for starters. OLIG’s head, Faisal Khan, has been embroiled in a long-running battle with members of the Chicago City Council and the mayor’s office over issues such as funding, investigative authority and whether the office is effective enough.
Even in the best of times, however, the OLIG was set up so that it was only allowed to investigate potential campaign finance violations if someone signed out a sworn complaint and was willing to go on the record and drop a dime on a sitting alderman. Which, of course, meant very few campaign finance violation cases ever came to light.
Yet, in July aldermen decided even that limited authority was too much, and yanked the responsibility for campaign finance from Khan and gave it to the Chicago Board of Ethics. Which made sense, since until 2012 the Board was responsible for the issue, even if it had proven to have little appetite or resources for the job. Once it was given the responsibility back, however, the Board made it clear nothing was going to change.
“As [an] adjudicator, the Board of Ethics can no longer be in the investigation business,” said Board Chairman Stephen Beard.
So, as of today, neither of the two agencies once involved in overseeing the city’s 50 incumbent aldermen and their campaign finance activities are actively engaged in doing so.
The situation is little better over on the executive branch of government, even if there’s currently an entity that’s trying to do something about it.
The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General, headed by Joe Ferguson, is responsible for overseeing the three executive branch positions in municipal government—mayor, City Clerk and City Treasurer. What makes Ferguson’s team different than his counterparts is that the OIG has both the investigative authority and the desire to examine campaign finance for the executive branch.
Yet, talk to Ferguson and it soon becomes clear that in Chicago, not even the legal authority or intent to root out potential wrongdoing is enough. In trying to pull the data and tools together needed to build an effective, proactive campaign finance monitoring system, the OIG reports it continually runs up against the kinds of political opposition and bureaucracy Chicago is well-known for.
“Over the past year we have tried to jump start our small slice of the moribund [campaign finance oversight] system,” Ferguson told Ward Room. “However, we have run up against a general lack of regulatory teeth and claims that the law doesn’t mean what it says. We have yet to see the institutional will needed for operating even a modest monitoring infrastructure.”
Which means that while the intent is there, the OIG could be months or even years away from being able to proactively root out executive branch campaign finance violations.
While all of this governmental inactivity and evasion is bad enough, all one has to do is pick up a newspaper to see signs all around that all is not well with political donations in Chicago.
In November, David Sirota of International Business Times reported that executives at investment firms that manage Chicago pension funds have given more than $600,000 in contributions into Mayor Rahm Emanuel's campaign operation and political action committees.
While on the surface it appears as if the donations violate both the mayor’s own 2011 executive order on ethics but also potentially SEC rules, shortly after the news broke the Chicago Board of Ethics helpfully ruled that since city-run pensions are not actual agencies, no violations occurred.
Meanwhile, money from wealthy donors—much of it from investment bankers and financial executives—continues to pour into the mayor’s reelection committee at an astonishing pace. And while there’s little doubt among many observers that, if he wished, the mayor has the political power to remove the roadblocks to effective campaign finance oversight in any city agency anytime he wished, there’s little hope he’s going to pick up the phone and make it so anytime soon.
In the end, no matter how you slice it in Chicago today, the city is a veritable Wild West town of open, unregulated campaign finance activity, with little to none of it under the watchful eye of a regulator of any type.
“Chicago’s campaign finance oversight is a house that on the surface looks like it might be made of brick, but in reality is made of straw—straw so poorly baled that the Big Bad Wolf needn't bother blowing it down,” says Ferguson.
Which is unfortunate, even in the best of times. Sixty days away from a major municipal election, it’s unconscionable.