The City Council today voted to give the job of campaign finance oversight of aldermen to a city agency that doesn’t want it, a move that the council’s watchdog said will be viewed as “a cynical ploy” to avoid scrutiny.
Aldermen voted 41-6 to allow the Board of Ethics to review campaign finances of aldermen and other council candidates for violations of city campaign limits, even though the ethics board chairman had urged aldermen to give the authority to Legislative Inspector Faisal Khan.
The move comes less than seven months before the February city elections in which candidates will be trying to raise significant amounts of money.
“In about seven months, each and every one of you will be up for re-election, and if the numbers continue to trend the way they are trending, there will be a record number of candidates for the position of aldermen in 2015” Khan told aldermen at the committee meeting. He urged that they give him the power to investigate their campaign fundraising, saying the authority properly rested with his office.
The Board of Ethics “has flat out stated that they don’t want (the responsibility of campaign finance investigations), has shown their inability to handle them and which frankly the law says does not belong to them,” Khan said.
Approval of the change “will be seen as nothing but a cynical ploy by this body to prevent its own investigative agency from doing the work it’s been mandated to do.”
The proposal was pushed by Ald. Patrick O’Connor, 40th, the council floor leader for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. O'Connor said he was trying to close a loophole created when the council in July 2013 enacted new rules, giving Khan only the authority to initiate campaign finance probes only when he receives a signed and sworn complaint. That prevents Khan from initiating his own investigations, and he sought the power to launch his own probes, with the backing of Board of Ethics Chairman Stephen Beard.
“The Office of Legislative Inspector general has the authority to investigate only matters in which it has received signed and sworn complaints,” Beard wrote in March 7 letter to the mayor and aldermen. “Many years of investigating campaign contribution matters have taught us that property enforcing those laws is a pro-active business — it requires that investigators be able to comb through contribution and other government records and then initiate investigations, not sit and wait for such complaints to come in.”
Beard also made it clear that the board, which now judges charges brought by the legislative inspector general instead of conducting probes, did not want the authority back. “As the adjudicator, the Board of Ethics can no longer be in the investigation business,” he wrote.
Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, one of the aldermen who voted against giving the power to the Board of Ethics, also questioned whether the board has the financial wherewithal to conduct such probes, given a backlog of such investigations that developed when it had such power before July 2013.
“We are now going to dump (the investigations) back into the same body that said they didn’t have enough resources to investigate all these complaints in the past,” Fioretti said. Khan agreed, saying the Board of Ethics has not done a campaign finance investigation since 2008.
After the meeting, Khan said the change would give aldermen carte blanche to do as the please when it comes to campaign finance.
“Nobody will be reviewing all the campaign donations that are coming in to the candidates and the incumbents,” Khan said. “And without that review, to see who exactly is giving money to whom and for what purpose, we don’t know if anyone will be elected legally, illegally or whether that money should be returned. . . . They talk about that they are ready for reform, (when) this clearly proves that they are not.”
The change, he said, is designed “to make sure for the next seven months the money flows in freely, and they can do whatever they want.”
City ordinances limit campaign finances from people who are doing business with the city to $1,500. Khan said he’s frequently been alerted to potential violations that he has not been able to probe.
Voting no: Fioretti, 2nd; Leslie Hairston, 5th; Scott Waguespack, 32nd; Nicholas Sposato, 36th; Brendan Reilly, 42nd; and John Arena, 45th.
In other City Council action today:
*Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd, said he plans to introduce a resolution calling for hearings on the city’s red light cameras in the wake of a Tribune investigation that found suspicious ticket spikes at dozens of intersections throughout the city.
On Friday, City Inspector General Joseph Ferguson said he was conducting a sweeping review of the program in response to the Tribune’s findings, and Emanuel is sending out letters giving drivers caught in those spikes a chance for another review of their violations.
*Emanuel, meanwhile, plans to introduce an ordinance that would ramp up the city’s minimum wage from the current $8.25 an hour to $13 an hour by 2018. But the proposal won’t be acted on until the General Assembly gets a chance to move on the same issue after the November election, when an advisory referendum on increasing the state’s minimum wage to $10 an hour is on the ballot.
*Other issues on today’s council agenda include boosting the city’s 911 tax on all telephone bills by $16.80 a year to stave off a property tax increase for pension funding; naming the park next to the city’s historic Water Tower after former Mayor Jane Byrne; and enacting a ban on aldermanic hiring of workers who were fired by the city for misconduct or left City Hall under a cloud of allegations.