Lightfoot ethics reforms give more teeth to city watchdog, limit outside employment for aldermen
Chicago aldermen will be held to higher ethical standards after approving the new mayor’s proposals to repair Chicago’s well-earned reputation for corruption.
Chicago City Council unanimously approved Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ethics reform package on July 24. The changes bring greater transparency and new definitions of what constitutes an ethics violation to what many consider to be the most corrupt city in America.
Chicagoans have watched for decades as one alderman after another has been led away in handcuffs on corruption charges. Corruption has nearly become a routine business practice among city leaders. During the first half of 2019, federal authorities have zeroed in on local politicians and insiders, raiding homes and offices of people associated with various Chicago aldermen and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The Chicago City Council has 50 aldermen, and they have too often exploited power in their wards through political favors, intimidation and bureaucratic red tape. Thirty aldermen have pleaded guilty or received convictions on corruption charges since 1972.
One of the proposal’s major changes is to allow the city’s inspector general to audit City Council committees.
Ald. Ed Burke, 14th Ward, fiercely fought against this idea as chairman of the finance committee and while overseeing the city’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program. Three days after federal authorities filed attempted extortion charges against Burke, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordered an immediate audit of the program.
The proposal also more clearly defines what constitutes a conflict of interest. The city will no longer allow aldermen to partake in outside work that conflicts with the interests of the city, including lobbying the city on behalf of a nonprofit organization or representing people in property tax appeals against the city.
Any alderman found to be in violation of ethics rules will be subject to fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. Previously, fines ranged from $500 to $2,000.
Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor and president of the Chicago Police Board, campaigned heavily on fighting corruption. She has said her overwhelming mayoral victory in which she won all 50 wards with over 70% of the vote has given her a mandate to enact sweeping ethics reforms.
The new changes put a spotlight on Burke, who pleaded not guilty to 14 federal corruption charges in June. Burke may now be forced to choose between his law firm and his position on the City Council, because his law firm deals with property tax appeals. Lightfoot has previously called on Burke to resign.
The ethics reforms come at a critical time at City Hall. Last month, a federal court sentenced former Ald. Willie Cochran to one year in prison for wire fraud. Former Ald. Danny Solis faces his own allegations of corruption in connection to Burke. Federal agents also raided the office of Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward, on June 19 as part of a corruption investigation. Former Ald. Michael Zalewski also had his home raided in a search for records linked to Madigan.
While reforming the nation’s most corrupt city will require far more work, it is refreshing to see Chicago leaders unanimously vote for change. Lightfoot’s new ethics rules impose clearer limits on Chicago aldermen, who were elected to serve their constituents – not their own interests.