Chicago at the ‘vanguard of government ethics’? New City Council rules would quadruple top fines for violators, but some measures watered down

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A City Council committee unanimously advanced a bundle of ethics amendments Friday that would overhaul the rules enforcing good government practices for a second time under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s first term. But the final version was watered down after negotiations between the legislation’s chief architect and the mayor.

Ethics committee Chair Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd, first put forth the revisions in April that include upping the maximum fine for ethics violations from $5,000 to $20,000, as well as banning former council members from lobbying the City Council. Those changes still exist in the new version hammered out between her and Lightfoot, but other provisions were softened.

The full council is due to vote on the proposal next week.

Chicago Board of Ethics Executive Director Steve Berlin gave his endorsement ahead of the vote, saying, “Many of these new laws would place Chicago solidly in the vanguard of government ethics regulation.”

He also nodded to potential behind-the-scenes disagreements between Smith and Lightfoot, noting a good compromise is one where “everyone walks away equally dissatisfied.”

The original legislation was relegated to the rules committee the first time it was before the City Council. When it made its way back to the full body in May, two of Lightfoot’s allies used a parliamentary maneuver to block it from going to the corresponding committee, in the second blow to the proposal. Lightfoot later distanced herself from that action.

“I don’t know anything about the ordinance,” Lightfoot told reporters. “I’ve never seen it. I haven’t read it. We were not consulted on it. So I can’t comment on the content.”

In June, the mayor said negotiations on the ethics package were beginning but insisted she didn’t have “concerns.”

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Among the initiatives scrapped in the latest proposal are requirements for subcontractors with the city to adhere to campaign contribution limits, and for elected officials to leave the council chambers when a vote or discussion occurs on something on which they have a conflict of interest. Berlin said in Friday’s committee hearing that restricting subcontractors was impractical because at the moment there is no way to track those companies, but he said the idea remains a future priority.

The latest version introduces some new provisions too.

It contains an exception to the rules forbidding use of the city seal for political purposes by an official, employee or candidate, allowing it as long as the insignia appears in an “incidental” way and there is a written disclaimer that its appearance is not related to official government business.

In addition, it adds an exception to rules precluding an official or employee from representing non-city entities in city transactions if the official is working for free on behalf of a nonprofit seeking to make donations.

The new version clarifies that charity drives do not violate the gift ban as long as they aren’t cash or gift cards. But the latest proposal also adds a $100 limit on gifts from subordinates to superiors, compared with the $250 ceiling in Smith’s first legislation.

The Board of Ethics is also required to give people a 10-day notice if it finds probable cause they violated the ethics ordinance, under the new version.

But several provisions survived the latest round of negotiations, in addition to the $20,000 fine cap and the ban on non-Council members — including former aldermen — lobbying on the floor.

Also new: Spouses and domestic partners are now included in determining conflicts of interest, and conflict-of-interest restrictions would be broadened to include any action or decision that could benefit an official or their relatives or partner, versus just contracted firms of city employees or relatives. Contractors would also be required to provide ethics and sexual harassment training.

Additionally, a $1,500 cap on campaign contributions will also apply to companies contracting with sister agencies of the city, such as Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Housing Authority.

The City Council continues to be hit by federal criminal convictions and indictments tied to allegations of corruption.

In February, then-11th Ward Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson was convicted of felony tax fraud and ordered to vacate his seat, while current 34th Ward Ald. Carrie Austin was indicted on bribery charges last year and Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, the longest-serving alderman in city history, was charged with racketeering and other counts in 2019. The latter two have pleaded not guilty.

Lightfoot has made ethics reform a cornerstone of her political campaigns but so far has overseen limited reforms and not succeeded in eliminating aldermanic prerogative.

In 2019, she delivered on one campaign promise focused on the City Council when her own ethics reform package sailed through the body with no debate. It gave the city inspector general more powers and tightened rules on outside jobs and City Hall lobbying, but she declined to add the $20,000 fine cap that the Board of Ethics had vied for.