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Mayor: Gutting of Ethics Bill ‘Reinforces Cynicism’ of City Council

City Council passed much-debated and controversial new ethics rules today by a unanimous vote. Even aldermen who were disappointed at the final, watered-down rules still voted yes, remarking that ethics reform was ‘fluid’ and that this was just one step forward.  But the mayor, whose office agreed to changes that would make it harder to investigate alderman, said he didn’t agree with the final outcome.

“When they separate themselves and say everyone is treated one way, but they have a separate standard for themselves, they reinforce a cynicism about City Council and themselves,” said Emanuel. “I think that’s wrong.”

Noticeably absent from the final ethics ordinance was the provision that would have allowed the council’s inspector general to open an investigation based on anonymous complaints. Several aldermen feared that allowing such an investigation to go forward would make them targets of slander from political opponents. Aldermen Joe Moore (49th) and Tim Cullerton (38th) noted that every other city employee was subject to investigation based upon anonymous complaints, and that city council was setting a double standard. Alderman Michele Smith (43rd) insisted that the council’s inspector general could be trusted to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff,’ and only investigate complaints that appeared legitimate. 

Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan lamented the final bill, calling it a missed opportunity for meaningful ethics reform.

“To say someone can’t come forward anonymously simply speaks of an alderman’s desire for self-preservation over ethics enforcement,” said Khan.

But one alderman told Chicago Tonight he didn’t trust the mayor’s intentions with the ethics ordinance, saying that many in City Council believed it was simply another way for him to wrest power away from the chamber.

As it stands now, any whistleblower has to sign their name to a complaint, swear to the veracity of it, and then have it vetted by the mayor’s appointed ethics board. Only then can the inspector general move forward on an investigation. The ordinance also institutes stiff fines of up to $2,000 and possible jail time for anyone who’s found to knowingly make a false complaint.

The final package is far from what the mayor’s appointed ‘Ethics Task Force,’ charged with writing new ethics rules for the city, originally envisioned. In their report, they said that preventing ‘anonymous complaints’ would have a “chilling effect,” on those wishing to come forward. 

Khan reports his office has seen a steady stream of complainants coming forward, “But who knows what else is out there,” he said.

The mayor predicted that City Council would eventually adopt tougher ethics rules for itself, and some aldermen admitted that it would only be a matter of time before their chamber would have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“I believe eventually we will allow anonymous complaints to happen against us,” said Alderman Will Burns (4th), noting that the legislators in the Illinois General Assembly approved anonymous complaints against them only after taking time to gain confidence that the system worked.

“I believe, over time, this body will get to that point as well.”