Former Chicago Comptroller Amer Ahmad kept working for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration for more than 10 months after a meeting in which FBI officials said he lied to them to try to cover up a kickback scheme during his time as Ohio's deputy treasurer.
Emanuel aides contend the mayor didn't know about the comptroller's federal heat until news surfaced of Ahmad's indictment Thursday. That's about three weeks after the administration announced Ahmad's abrupt departure from City Hall. Asked Friday what Ahmad told the mayor when he left, Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said, "(Ahmad) said he wanted to return to the private sector."
Hamilton said she doesn't know whether Emanuel asked Ahmad where he was going to work next or whether the mayor thought it was odd that Ahmad would leave for the private sector apparently without having a job set up.
Now aldermen say they want more clarity about who in city government knew what, and when, about Ahmad's alleged illegal activities in the government post he held before Emanuel plucked him to be city comptroller in April 2011.
"I'd like to know when the administration found out about these issues," said Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd. "It's very concerning that the person charged with protecting our tax dollars is alleged to have committed these crimes."
Reilly, vice chairman of the City Council Budget Committee, said more needs to be done to check the background of the next comptroller. "Certainly, we need to make sure whomever replaces Mr. Ahmad is thoroughly vetted," he said.
Hamilton has said that the "city routinely conducts criminal background checks, city residency verification and city indebtedness checks" on job applicants, but stopped short of saying that's what was done before Ahmad was hired. "A confidential federal investigation of this nature would not have been revealed in any such review," she said.
A federal indictment alleges Ahmad directed Ohio state investment work between January 2009 and January 2011 to a former high school classmate who was his longtime investment adviser. In exchange, that man funneled a total of more than $500,000 to the company part-owned by Ahmad and to a lawyer and lobbyist who was a "close personal friend and business associate" of Ahmad, prosecutors said.
The investment adviser and Joseph Chiavaroli, described by prosecutors as part owner with Ahmad of a landscaping company that got some of the kickbacks, pleaded guilty last week. Ahmad's attorney said his client intends to plead not guilty on Monday in federal court in Ohio.
Despite the administration's contention that Emanuel didn't know about the federal probe of Ahmad until Thursday, Hamilton said Friday that a "preliminary review" indicated "there was no city business with any of the individuals or entities named in the indictment" against Ahmad. Hamilton declined to say what that review entailed.
The administration also announced Friday that the mayor has asked top City Hall lawyer Stephen Patton and Inspector General Joseph Ferguson to "jointly look into Mr. Ahmad's time as a city employee to ensure that the public interest has been upheld and taxpayers have been protected."
The mayor's pairing of Patton and Ferguson sets up an interesting power dynamic. Ferguson has frequently clashed with the mayor while trying to dig into the claims of savings in Emanuel pet programs like the grid garbage system. By naming Ferguson to investigate Ahmad, the mayor can claim he's seeking an independent opinion.
But Patton is an Emanuel appointee who successfully fought to the Illinois Supreme Court to limit Ferguson's ability to subpoena the mayor's office. Under the high court's ruling, Ferguson must ask Patton to enforce subpoenas. Hamilton would not say how much authority Patton will have to direct the investigation into Ahmad's work.
Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd, said Ferguson will need the freedom to dig deep into the city's finances for the investigation to be worthwhile. "Don't forget, the comptroller has a hand in the finances, the pension funds, all financial aspects of this city," Fioretti said.
Ferguson's office declined comment.
Ahmad's relationship with longtime friend, lobbyist and fellow indictee Mohammed Noure Alo was under scrutiny as far back as 2010. Ohio newspaper reports questioned how an East Coast bank got a contract with the Ohio treasurer's office after hiring Alo as its lobbyist. The issue became fodder for an attack ad against Ahmad's boss, Democratic Treasurer Kevin Boyce, that mentioned both Ahmad and Alo. Boyce lost the November 2010 election, and Emanuel announced in late April 2011 that Ahmad would join his financial team as soon as the new mayor took office the following month.
Hamilton said the mayor wasn't aware about questions raised in Ohio about Ahmad and Alo.
Once in Chicago, Ahmad became the point man for some of Emanuel's more controversial cost-cutting moves. He sparred with aldermen over the decision to outsource telephone customer service jobs at the Water Management Department and helped spearhead the mayor's plan to save money on health insurance by shifting retired city workers to President Barack Obama's new federal health care system.
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