When Amer Ahmad abruptly resigned as city comptroller about three weeks ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel heaped praise on his hand-picked aide for helping him "reform government" in Chicago.
On Thursday, Ahmad was indicted in Ohio on federal corruption charges in what prosecutors described as a more than $500,000 kickback scheme involving state investment business while he served as deputy treasurer and chief financial officer there.
Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton declined to answer specific questions about Ahmad, but she issued a statement saying the administration did not know about the investigation until the indictment was announced.
"It appears to be focused on alleged activities when Ahmad served the state of Ohio," Hamilton said in an email. "We have no reason to believe and have no knowledge of any such wrongdoing during his tenure in Chicago. But we will take any action that is needed — including conducting a review of Finance Department activities over the last two years — to ensure that Chicago taxpayers are protected."
The alleged scheme Ohio prosecutors outlined went on from January 2009 to January 2011, a few months before Ahmad joined Emanuel as comptroller.
According to the indictment, Ahmad steered state investment business to a broker whose firm made $3.2 million in commissions on 360 trades on behalf of the Ohio treasurer's office. The broker, Douglas E. Hampton, a high school classmate who had served as Ahmad's investment adviser since 1996, allegedly funneled more than $400,000 in the form of phony loans to a landscaping business owned by Ahmad and Chicagoan Joseph Chiavaroli, prosecutors said.
In addition, Hampton allegedly steered $123,000 in money disguised as legal fees to Mohammed Noure Alo, a lawyer and lobbyist who was a "close personal friend and business associate" of Ahmad, prosecutors said.
Ahmad is charged with money laundering, conspiracy, honest services wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, federal program bribery and making false statements, prosecutors said.
Ahmad plans to plead not guilty to all charges, one of his attorneys said Thursday. W. Kelly Johnson declined to discuss the allegations but insisted that Ahmad's resignation last month in Chicago had nothing to do with the federal investigation in Ohio.
"Mr. Ahmad made a two-year commitment to the mayor, and he fulfilled his commitment to the mayor and to the city of Chicago," Johnson said. "It was a standard, midterm departure."
While midterm resignations from the mayor's staff are common, City Hall news releases about people leaving frequently come with notices about where they will be working next. Ahmad's did not. In the July 23 release, Emanuel praised him.
"Amer has played an integral role in my efforts to reform government, strengthen the city's finances and professionalize our approach to fiscal management," Emanuel said in the statement. "While we are sad to see him leave our team, I thank Amer for his service to Chicago and wish him the best as he returns to the private sector."
When Emanuel brought Ahmad to City Hall in late April 2011, newspapers in Ohio already had raised questions about the links between Ahmad and Alo after a Boston-based bank won business from the Ohio treasurer's office after hiring Alo as its lobbyist. Alo, 35, of Columbus, also was indicted Thursday in the alleged scheme.
Asked about the Emanuel administration's vetting process for hiring Ahmad, Hamilton said in an email that the "city routinely conducts criminal background checks, city residency verification and city indebtedness checks. A confidential federal investigation of this nature would not have been revealed in any such review."
According to Ahmad's LinkedIn profile, he worked at the same New York-based firm, Wasserstein Perella & Co., that Emanuel made his fortune with as an investment banker. Ahmad's profile says he worked there as an analyst and associate from 1996 through 1999. Emanuel served as managing director of the firm's Chicago office from 1999 through 2001.
The son of Pakistani immigrants, Ahmad, 38, made Crain's Chicago Business' "40 Under 40" list last year. In a video interview, Ahmad told the publication that having a daughter who was born prematurely taught him "compassion and honesty in my own heart. And I think as a public servant now, I've been able to bring it all together working in government, which I really believe in the promise of government to help solve our society's problems."
Days after Emanuel first announced Ahmed's hiring, his transition team released an endorsement from former Ohio Treasurer Kevin Boyce.
"Amer Ahmad will be a tremendous addition to the Emanuel administration," Boyce said in the statement. "His financial skills are unmatched and his dedication to public service unrivaled."
Hampton, 39, pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiracy in Ohio federal court. Chiavaroli, 33, pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring to commit money laundering.
Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.