Thanks to a new encouraging and proactive ruling by the Chicago Board of Ethics (BOE), certain corrupting freebies and special perks are now out of bounds for the city’s elected officials.
Last week, the BOE’s new chairman, William Conlon, sent a letter to all City Council members letting them know that they were not allowed to accept a special offer from the Chicago White Sox for free tickets and admission to a cocktail reception at the Sox home opener. The offer was exclusive to elected officials and not available to the general public.
As Conlon explained, the offer is illegal because the ticket and reception are worth more than the allowed $50 threshold for gifts to city aldermen.
The Board of Ethics is in charge of enforcing the city’s ethics laws and giving guidance as to what is allowed under the law and punishment for elected officials breaking the law.
The $50 gift ban for elected officials helps fight pay-to-play deal-making as well as the perception of corruption, particularly in situations where aldermen are tasked with voting on matters directly affecting organizations giving the gifts, like the White Sox.
Even though the White Sox have “a long-standing tradition of extending Opening Day invitations to a diverse group of VIPs and politicians,” as the team described it when asked about the offer, the BOE correctly ended this special perk. In the letter, Conlon advised aldermen who may have already accepted the offer to “immediately return the tickets and decline the team’s offer.”
This decision doubles down on a position the Board of Ethics first took last year in response to the Chicago Cubs offering Chicago’s elected officials playoff tickets at “face value.” The board eventually decided that the Cubs offer violated a ban on gifts of more than $50 for city officials because the tickets had a real value dramatically higher than the face value.
Even some aldermen agree.
Alderman Matt O’Shea (19th Ward), a vocal proponent of the board’s previous decision regarding the Cubs offer, applauded the board for taking a more assertive approach to aldermanic perks. He told the Chicago Sun-Times,
“It’s not special rules, special perks for us. Now, more than ever, Chicagoans need to know that it’s not the good ol’ days.”
While O’Shea has been consistent in his backing of a proactive Board of Ethics, other aldermen seem to have learned from the public backlash that occurred over the Cubs offer last year. Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward), who claimed that the board’s opinion regarding the Cubs offer would impose a “tremendous burden” on aldermen, supported the board’s ban on the White Sox’ Opening Day offer.
Chicago has a well-known history and culture of government corruption. There are many changes that need to occur to get out from underneath this clouded history, but a more assertive Board of Ethics is a strong step in the right direction.
An elected official’s job is to craft, debate and pass laws that best serve his or her constituents, not take advantage of special perks and offers that could compromise their judgment and loyalties.
Allowing our elected officials to take advantage of freebies and perks creates an atmosphere ripe for corruption. When ethical lines are hazy, it’s easy for even the most well-intentioned aldermen to find themselves on the wrong side of ethics laws.
An active, assertive Board of Ethics is a positive for both citizens and our elected officials. Hopefully it sticks around.