Chicago aldermen on Monday endorsed Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed changes to city ethics rules, but only after the mayor watered down his proposal three times to satisfy City Council members who said they were wary of false complaints.
Under the proposal now set for routine approval Wednesday, the legislative inspector general would not be able to investigate anonymous complaints against aldermen or their staff members — as the city’s executive inspector general can do in the case of the mayor and his employees.
Even when someone signs a complaint and attests to its truth — upon risk of a $2,000 fine and six months in jail for lying — the legislative inspector general still would have to get approval from the mayor-appointed Board of Ethics before launching an investigation.
Emanuel had proposed that investigations could be launched based on anonymous complaints and with no prior approval for signed, sworn complaints, but aldermen rejected those provisions, saying they feared the process would be used for political retribution.
The mayor also reduced to one year from two a ban on aldermen lobbying City Hall after leaving office, and put off the effective date until Jan. 1. In addition, a provision was taken out that would have blocked council employees from lobbying for one year after leaving City Hall.
Also removed was a measure that would have required paid nonprofit leaders to register as lobbyists if they sought to influence legislation. Although many of those people are religious leaders, some nonprofits have close ties to political leaders.
Emanuel said Monday he doesn’t agree with the City Council’s efforts to water down his ethics plan, but he defended his ongoing record on ethics and reform since taking office in May 2011. During the campaign, Emanuel suggested that the executive inspector general’s broader authority be extended to the council, but aldermen resisted and instead created the weaker office of legislative inspector general.
Whitney Woodward of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform said “the biggest loss” was the removal of the anonymous complaint section. “I’m afraid that is going to send the message to the public that aldermen are interested in protecting themselves,” Woodward said.
The proposal would make fundamental changes — as recommended by the mayor’s ethics reform task force — in the way ethics complaints, investigations and punishments are handled. Both the legislative and executive inspectors general would conduct investigations, but the ethics board would make recommendations for discipline or impose fines after conducting hearings.
During the past 25 years, the ethics board has not found a single case of wrongdoing among aldermen, even though 20 were convicted of felonies during that period. Last fall, Emanuel replaced the seven-member board, and observers say it is too early to judge the work of the newly revamped panel.
The legislative inspector general also would have a new right to investigate people who lobby aldermen.
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