Chicago City Council Should Take Up Ethics Reform to Ensure Public Trust

June 21, 2024

Conviction of former alderman reminder of the need for ethics reform

When a federal jury convicted former Alderman Ed Burke on 13 counts of racketeering, bribery, and attempted extortion in December 2023, he became the 38th City Council member convicted of crimes involving public duties since 1972.

Presuming U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall imposes a sentence on Burke placing him behind bars, and Burke’s convictions survive any expected appeal, business for the Chicago City Council will proceed as usual. This is to say business of the city’s legislative assembly will advance while failing to address the chamber’s systemically corrupt politics.

Though Mr. Burke’s indictment and later conviction should have served as a solemn warning corruption and venality flourish in the city’s legislative chamber, the first attempt at ethics reform — an ordinance which would apply fines or suspend lobbyists for donations to mayoral campaigns — failed to advance in the Council last week. A proposed ordinance developed from a 2011 executive order by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, following Mayor Brandon Johnson’s maneuvering, the draft was deferred.

That the City Council adjourned without adopting the measure to no mass outcry reveals the general public cares little about ethics reform. Worse, it also illustrates City Council members recognize the public’s indifference to ethics in their elected officials and, as a result, aldermen deliberately fail to act properly.

Despite Mayor Johnson blocking the motion, the prospect exists the bill will eventually be approved and become law. The proposal should be enacted. Ed Burke’s conviction should be a moment for sober reflection and it is well past time the City Council clean its stables. A body rocked by decades of ethics scandals, Burke’s indictment and conviction is undeniable evidence an environment of permissiveness still exists. Therefore, the chamber serves as a bar magnet to individuals who believe they can do as they wish in government.

The City Council is in great need of a cultural renewal. Currently, there are four ethics reform bills pending before the body. All four have the full support of the Chicago Board of Ethics and demand endorsement by members of the City Council. Though all four proposals cover issues of searing importance, it is probably helpful to begin with a brief analysis of Alderman Matt Martin’s ordinance prohibiting donations to incumbent mayoral campaigns.

An attempt to codify a 2011 mayoral executive order, under Martin’s proposal — a broader version of Emanuel’s 2011 edict — lobbyists would face fines or suspension from political activity for donations to mayoral campaigns. While not all money in politics is spent for the purpose of capturing private favors, lobbyists’ campaign activities provide special influence above and beyond the benefits to their clients and can create impression they are attempting to acquire unfair influence or reward certain actions. Prohibiting such contributions eliminates the appearance of an implicit political trade-off.

Furthermore, adopting this reform measure would deliver three powerful messages: First, financial interests are not allowed to have a disproportionate influence over mayoral candidates. Second, a balance exists in lawmaking and policy discussion. Third, individuals of any social rank can assert themselves in Chicago’s rumbustious political system.

Aside from banning lobbyists’ contributions to mayoral campaigns, the City Council has a rare window of opportunity to overhaul city aldermanic elections. Under Martin’s proposed ordinance, elections to represent all 50 wards in the City of Chicago would be financed with public dollars.

Though many people profess to be disgusted by the role of money in politics, these scruples ignore the fact that money has, and always will, play a role in elections. Martin’s bill contains provisions that would conceivably finance a candidate up to $200,000 in public funds distributed by a Fair Elections Fund. Upon a contender filing and qualifying as a candidate, they would receive a $50,000 block payment, followed by an additional $150,000 if certain eligibility requirements are met. Among the conditions to qualify are candidates consenting to a minimum of two debates and compliance with a Fair Elections Commission’s law regarding campaign finance reports.

While publicly funded campaigns sound like a good idea, numerous unanswered questions linger. First, how should Chicago finance the law? With the city’s bleak finances hovering behind any additional spending, funding presents an exasperating problem. Second, would publicly funded elections demand the creation of new positions within government? Third, would the bill curtail donations from corporations and unions? Since publicly financed elections cannot be mandatory, would candidates who decline public money still be obligated to comply with restrictions placed on political contributions? Though questions surrounding this motion are manifold and complex, they can be settled by means of spirited and nuanced hearings held in the City Council with testimony heard from critics and supporters of election reform.

The paramount goals of election reform should be making elections more competitive and preventing big money or high-dollar donors from controlling outcomes. Martin’s proposal could do just that.

“Note that these four bills are not mutually exclusive — they are all important, though they address a wide panoply of government ethics issues, from financial disclosure to gifts/bribes to campaign finance reform.
The public financing bill is by far the most complex of these. It reflects a lot of work and thoughtful input from good government advocates like Reform for Illinois and its Executive Director, Alisa Kaplan. We urge the Administration and City Council to support it and hold public hearings on it with subject matter experts. We will work toward seeing that, with appropriate modifications and tweaks, it eventually it becomes law and is expanded beyond City Council elections to the other City elected offices. In the area of campaign financing law (one of the most interesting areas in this whole field), public financing of municipal elections is really the gold standard, as it is fully consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision,” said Steve Berlin, Executive Director of the Chicago Board of Ethics.

A third pending bill which deserves serious consideration revises language or clarifies existing ethics code. Under this motion, a section of current ethics canon on the subject of bribery is edited to address all forms of questionable inducements to influence government decision — illegal payments, bribes, kickbacks or other forms of corruption. This proposal also speaks to financial disclosure, specifically reporting ownership or remuneration from individuals or businesses conducting business with the City of Chicago. Prior to amending, disclosure was required only in instances occurring in a 12-month period. New language requires city officials and employees to disclose proprietorship or compensation from individuals and businesses having dealings with Chicago at any time in the previous calendar year.

Finally, in another proposal advanced by the Board of Ethics, aldermen are asked to consider adopting a proposed ordinance which would strengthen rules regulating independent contractors performing work with the City of Chicago. Under this proposed ordinance, the Board urges independent contractors be considered employees of Chicago, and accordingly held to the same ethical standards regarding gift-giving and conflict of interest proscriptions. Furthermore, the proposal aims at election administration, mainly by fixing on election communications and empowers the Board of Ethics to penalize an individual candidate and a candidate’s political committee for misuse of city images for political purposes. More important, this ordinance, if adopted, will close a campaign finance loophole and equip the Board to fine those in violation for individually contributing to a campaign following a contribution from a business at which they are employed.

Ethics reform should be passed without delay

The Chicago City Council is notorious for its lack of ethics. Worse, it consistently shrinks from every window of opportunity to impose discipline on itself. Aldermen deferring an ordinance on lobbyists’ contributions to mayoral campaigns is one such rejection of a safeguard to prevent corruption.

The deferment of the latest ethics bill only affirms Chicago’s elected officials place a higher premium on serving their own political interests, with scant regard for the effect on the city as a whole. Lawmakers looking after the personal rather than the public good erodes faith in government and, for example, goes a long way to explain Chicago’s alarmingly low voter-turnout. While voters bear the greatest responsibility for whom they choose to represent them, without effective controls governing lawmakers’ behavior in office, the onus of responsibility to create, manage and abide by ethics rests with aldermen. Ed Burke’s conviction serves as a clarion call for ethics reform.

Instilling in our public officials to act in a conscionable manner has been a concern of the lawmaking class profession since time immemorial. Burke’s conviction is timely: The Chicago Board of Ethics and the Office of the Inspector General are supporting four bills which could mark the dawn of a change in culture for the City Council. Beginning with election reform, further limitations on donations, and clamping down on pay-to-play, passage of these ordinances would be a sharp break from business as usual and show aldermen have the political courage to clean up the city’s legislative chamber.

Codifying these bills many not usher in a Golden Age of ethics in Chicago, but it is a start.

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