Treasurer faces additional $10,000 fine; ethics leaders chastise Johnson

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The Chicago Board of Ethics issued an additional $10,000 fine to city Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin Monday related to the firing of two top aides who alleged she misused taxpayer resources and pressured government workers to help her political allies.

The fine follows an inspector general investigation and a November probable cause finding from the board, which Conyears-Ervin was given the opportunity to rebut in the interim. In line with ethics board policy, Conyears-Ervin was not named.

“We have engaged in this process with seriousness and good faith, and are disappointed in today’s action,” Conyears-Ervin spokesman Brian Berg said in a written statement. “We are evaluating all options available to us, and remain confident that a fuller airing of the validity of these years old allegations and questionable actions of investigators will paint a fuller picture — and we look forward to that day. Until then, we will continue to respect what is supposed to be a confidential process.”

Monday’s fine comes on the heels of a separate $60,000 penalty levied against the treasurer by the same board last month. They found on “multiple occasions,” Conyears-Ervin violated her fiduciary duty, made unauthorized uses of city property and conducted prohibited political activities, according to a board summary.

The Tribune first reported on allegations made by former aides Tiffany Harper and Ashley Evans, who said they were retaliated against and ultimately fired after reporting the misconduct. Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration paid out a $100,000 settlement to the two, then fought for roughly two years to conceal the details of their whistleblower complaint.

Mayor Brandon Johnson released that information after taking office.

Separately, Chicago ethics leaders on Monday criticized Johnson for failing to fill vacancies on the city’s ethics board and an “abrupt” pullback from plans to tighten rules for contractors and candidates for city office.

William Conlon, the typically amiable chair of the seven-member Board of Ethics, criticized Johnson’s slow pace to fill two vacant spots on the board, which have been empty since July 2022 and March 2023.

Two other members’ terms will expire this summer. If those four positions aren’t filled before the end of July, the board will not have enough members to legally meet.

“As you can tell, we are still down two members, a task that can’t be that difficult,” Conlon said during Monday’s board meeting. “We have two members whose terms are set to expire at the end of July. Two clear-thinking, independent, thoughtful people who do their homework and are here participating every time. Why they have not been reappointed baffles me.”

Johnson spokesman Ronnie Reese said three candidates will be submitted for those board vacancies this month “with approval anticipated at the June City Council meeting.”

Steve Berlin, the board’s longtime executive director, added that he was “sad to report” there were “no current plans to hold a committee meeting or ethics committee hearing on the proposed amendments” to the city’s ethics ordinance.

Though ethics changes were legislative hallmarks of the early months of Johnson’s two predecessors, the mayor has not embraced any new changes to the city’s oversight rules. Without mayoral support, such changes typically wither on the vine in the City Council.

“I know that Ald. (Matt) Martin is disappointed in this as well,” Berlin said.

Martin, 47th, chair of the City Council Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, took up the board’s proposed changes and said they would be a priority for passage this spring. Instead, the committee has canceled two scheduled meetings in recent months.

Martin told the Tribune he was “frustrated” about the board vacancies and confirmed there was no timeline to take up ethics reform.

“I don’t think that we’re yet in a place where there’s alignment across the committee and the mayor’s office,” regarding ethics ordinance amendments, Martin said, declining to comment on the misalignment. “So we’ll continue to work on that, but I don’t have a timeline for when we might be able to take those up.”

The mayor’s office did not comment on the amendments.

The board’s proposed changes — spurred in part by Tribune reporting — include barring contractors who work for aldermen from getting involved in any city decisions that benefit their own financial interests, or that benefit other clients or employers.

The changes would also “make clear that no candidate or political fundraising committee may, for example, send emails soliciting political contributions or campaign work to city employees or officials to their official city email addresses,” a response to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s mayoral campaign sending emails to Chicago Public Schools staff seeking student interns.

Earlier this year, Johnson described those proposed reforms as “a positive step toward a more accountable city government,” but did not otherwise comment on his ethics priorities.

During Monday’s ethics board meeting, Bryan Zarou, policy chief for the Better Government Association, said there was an “abrupt” and “troubling” pullback of mayoral support from the ethics amendment ordinance and he had not received a clear explanation why.

Conlon described that as an “unfortunate surprise.”

In the meantime, Martin said his committee would hold hearings on inspector general findings and audits and potentially codify an old executive order banning lobbyists from donating to the mayor.

Four registered lobbyists were initially dinged by the board for donating to Johnson’s campaign. That violated a 2011 executive order signed by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel barring such donations.

The board found, though, it had no authority to enforce the order, nor did the city’s inspector general have power to formally investigate potential violations. The board dismissed the cases against those lobbyists.

While Johnson returned the donations and his campaign said the policy was “sound and necessary,” he said last month that codifying the rule is not something he’s “spent a lot of time thinking about,” according to WBEZ, and that he would “take another look at it.”