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City Council Watchdog Faisal Khan Defends Office, Investigation Process

By Ted Cox | August 8, 2013 6:35am
 Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan says, "We take each case and say, 'Is there something to this?'"
Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan says, "We take each case and say, 'Is there something to this?'"
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

RIVER NORTH — Faisal Khan has found Chicago to be a welcoming city, but for one small detail: his job.

As the city's first legislative inspector general, Khan was the man nobody wanted — nobody in the City Council, that is, or at most very few.

Yet, the council finally buckled to public and political pressure in 2011, and Khan was appointed in November of that year to fill the post to investigate complaints against aldermen and their staffs.

"It has been a challenge," Khan said. "We literally created this office from scratch, and that was a huge challenge."

Khan spent seven years as an assistant district attorney in Queens County, New York, but otherwise worked as an investigator in New York City, most recently in the city's Department of Investigations, formerly with the police civilian review board. So he was prepared to run his own Office of Legislative Inspector General in Chicago when he got the post.

"These cases aren't as simple as a sanitation worker sleeping on the job or not doing what he's supposed to be doing," Khan said in an interview Wednesday in his River North office. "We're dealing with aldermen, and aldermen are complex people and they have complex involvement in so many different things."

They also have ways of lashing back at those who irritate them. Last month, Khan issued a semi-annual report, as required by law, citing five aldermen for misdeeds, without naming them publicly (again, as required by law). Yet reporters connected the dots, and most aldermen responded with admissions along with various degrees of regret.

But Ald. Joe Moore (49th), accused of giving $22,000 in excessive severance to workers some have described as "ghost payrolling," accused Khan's office of "lack of professionalism" because it didn't give him the chance to respond to the charges before they were made public.

Khan said that displayed a lack of understanding of the role of his office. The office investigates complaints and refers any pertinent findings to the Board of Ethics or, in extreme cases, to the state's attorney or U.S. attorney. The Board of Ethics is usually charged with reaching a final judgment and enforcement.

"All we do is investigate and report," Khan said. "I can't create complaints. The law doesn't allow me to. We are a reactive agency."

He added his office is strict about confidentiality.

"These are processes that have been set up in place to make sure that everybody gets their due process," Khan said.

Moore also charged that the accusation was politically motivated, as he has advocated eliminating Khan's office and putting all city investigations under Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

"There is no headhunting going on here," Khan said. "For anyone to imply that we headhunt, or we're targeting any one person, it's simply not true, because we don't control the complaints that come in the door. We only act on those. All we can do is make findings."

Those complaints have been increasing since he came in the door. Khan said the year before he was hired, when the council was charged with investigating itself, there were only three or four. So they budgeted for his job to pay $60,000 as a part-time position. Khan said that once there was an independent office set up, he received 30 complaints the first month.

At first billing the city on an hourly basis, Khan rang up what would have been $270,000 in fees in 2012. Yet Khan said that was basically just to show the amount of work being done, and he has since negotiated a full-time salary the same as Ferguson and other city department heads, with the rest of his $260,000 budget going to a part-time staff of a handful of people.

He said economic independence is essential for the office, because if he goes to the council asking for more money, it puts aldermen in the awkward position of appearing to pay him off if they agree, or trying to strangle the office if they don't.

Khan said his office fielded 130 complaints last year, which led to 30 investigations, so he has no qualms about possibly accepting anonymous complaints in the future if allowed to — a notion aldermen have resisted thus far.

"We take each case and say, 'Is there something to this?'" Khan said. "I'm confident enough in my staff and this office to make sure every complaint is investigated properly."

That might change, however, as the office was charged in July with taking on complaints involving lobbyists and campaign financing as well.

"We need all the help we can get financially because the case load is about to go through the roof," he said, estimating there could be 300 more complaints filed.

Khan said he was not taken aback by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's remark Tuesday that he hadn't the "time or interest" to read Khan's latest report. For one thing, Khan said, the mayor has no role anywhere in the process, unlike Ferguson's reports, which go to the mayor.

"The mayor probably has a little more on his plate than I do," Khan said. "His desk is probably a little more crowded than mine right now, so I have no problem with him not reading my report."