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Council Watchdog: I'm Toothless Until City Shuts Campaign-Finance Loophole

By Ted Cox | July 21, 2014 5:25am
 Ald. Patrick O'Connor has made attempts to close a loophole in campaign-finance laws.
Ald. Patrick O'Connor has made attempts to close a loophole in campaign-finance laws.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — A call to tighten enforcement of the city's laws on political contributions to aldermen is going unheeded, just as campaign season for the City Council gets underway.

Potential candidates for city office can start circulating nominating petitions next month and can start accepting donations this fall.

But policing those donations is another matter, and if the City Council doesn't crack down before the end of the month, nothing can be done until September.

Stephen Beard, chairman of the Board of Ethics, sent an open letter to the mayor and the City Council in March warning of a loophole in enforcing the city's campaign-finance laws. It pointed out that the Office of the Legislative Inspector General, assigned to monitor aldermen, cannot initiate an investigation on its own, and neither can the Board of Ethics, which is generally assigned to rule on offenses the inspectors general raise.

"Many years of investigating campaign-contribution matters have taught us that properly enforcing these laws is a pro-active business," Beard wrote. "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."

Inspector General Joseph Ferguson has the power to open investigations of city employees, including the mayor, on his own.

Yet Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan does not have that power, and has to wait for some individual to file a sworn complaint in order to open an investigation.

"This means that, for 50 of the 53 elected city offices, there is no effective enforcement mechanism for our municipal campaign-finance laws," Beard said.

He warned that "Chicago will head into a municipal election year with no oversight of contributions made to incumbent aldermen or their challengers."

The loophole developed when Mayor Rahm Emanuel moved to clearly delineate the roles of the inspectors general and the Board of Ethics two years ago. Taking investigative powers away from the board, while failing to allow the legislative inspector general to open investigations, left a hole where no one actively monitors political contributions to aldermen.

"You as a civilian can do it, and we can't," Khan said recently.

"We continue to work with the aldermen, Board of Ethics and the inspectors general to close the unintended investigatory gap that became apparent after the new ethics ordinance came into effect," said mayoral spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier.

"We've heard that message for the last four months from the Mayor's Office," Khan replied. "We've been trying to find out what's going on with them and haven't heard a response.

"The Mayor's Office has said they've been doing things about it, but we've seen absolutely no movement on this bill whatsoever," Khan added. "If it goes past July, we won't talk about it again until September," because there's no City Council meeting in August, "when we're already in full campaign swing."

The next municipal election is set for Feb. 24.

Ald. Patrick O'Connor (40th) submitted two ordinances in an attempt to close that loophole last October. One would allow the legislative inspector general to initiate investigations on campaign financing, which is readily monitored on state websites where contributions are required to be posted. The other would allow the Board of Ethics to directly monitor and enforce laws on political contributions.

Yet both have been mired in the Rules Committee, which has been called "where good legislation goes to die."

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), chairman of the Rules Committee, did not respond to requests for comment, and neither did O'Connor.

Khan pointed out aldermen have no reason to move with any urgency to allow investigations of themselves.

"The self-interest is completely prevalent," he said. "It's the thing that's controlling the entire movement."

Khan said potential abuses are "endemic at all levels of city government, and it needs to be addressed."

Just this month, a contribution to Emanuel from a developer raised eyebrows over changes to a Wicker Park landmark, although that would be a case for Ferguson to probe.

"We have to be able to look at this to make sure there are fair and proper elections in the city and no candidate is elected with illegal funds," Khan said.

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