In December 2016, a federal grand jury in Chicago indicted Alderman Willie B. Cochran for 15 counts of bribery, extortion, theft and fraud. This indictment came from years of work by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the US Attorney’s Office and the now-defunct Office of the Legislative Inspector General (OLIG), an office I ran for four years.
The indictment highlighted yet another Chicago politician accused of violating the public’s trust and acting above the law, a tried-and-true tradition in Chicago.
But this indictment also highlighted something else—the system can work; oversight can be effective in Chicago.
The evolution of Chicago oversight
Prior to 2011, there was no oversight of Chicago’s City Council, despite more than 30 aldermen being carted off to jail for corruption charges over a 31-year period. Even with these eye-opening stats, Chicago had no city agency that was allowed to investigate—or even question—aldermen on ethics violations or reports of corruption.
After the 2011 arrest and indictment of former Chicago Alderman William Beavers (7th Ward) for tax violations, aldermen could no longer avoid the need for oversight. So, despite perennially shunning checks and balances for themselves while ardently advocating it for others, City Council was forced to create the Office of the Legislative Inspector General to oversee themselves and their staffs.
Chicago already had an Inspector General’s Office to oversee city employees, but City Council sold the story that the existing IG could act as a mayoral “hitman” against them through selective prosecutions based on political motivations. So to get around that baseless accusation, aldermen came up with the idea of creating their own IG office.
So in 2011, I was hired as the first, and now only, legislative inspector general (LIG) in Chicago history.
As LIG, I was tasked (at least on paper) with providing effective oversight of City Council. When I took the job, I intended to complete that mandate, but it did not come easy.
For four years, the very people who created my office put every obstacle and roadblock imaginable in place to try to prevent my office from being effective. City Council enacted stringent requirements for complaints and tips against aldermen, as well as requirements to notify aldermen that they were under investigation, and City Council put themselves in charge of my office’s budget and resource allocation.
Chicago aldermen were in charge of how much money the OLIG was given to operate and were entitled to be notified if they were being investigated for charges of corruption—and what those charges were before the real investigation even began.
To put this in context, imagine if Al Capone got to decide what the budget of Eliot Ness and his crime fighters was. Imagine if Ness had to trudge over to Capone headquarters to report every investigation and who he was investigating. If that were the case, the legacies of Capone and Ness would be very different today, along with our history books.
The OLIG was designed to fail. Many aldermen were hoping to put on a show for taxpayers—a façade of work being done with no real results and no actual change, otherwise known as business as usual in Chicago.
And this wasn’t a secret. There are anecdotal examples—telling proof of Chicago City Council’s dismissive view of oversight—of the ridicule the OLIG endured during our tenure. Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward), who admittedly violated ethics rules, openly denounced oversight for himself and his colleagues and even publicly hurled insults at OLIG staff. Alderman Pat O’Connor (40th Ward), along with many other City Council members who were under investigation themselves, also became vocal critics of the office.
All of this happened on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s watch.
Unfortunately, the mayor responded with a combination of silence and canned soundbites to both private and public pleas for assistance and leadership.
Also, despite the fact that the OLIG authority and ordinance were designed to be weak, that still didn’t stop City Council from continuously weakening and watering down the ethics ordinance to protect themselves from oversight. Examples of aldermen’s attempts to weaken the ethics ordinance that had jurisdiction over them included:
- The ability to investigate campaign finance violations was stripped from the OLIG, despite the fact that no investigation into campaign finance violations had been completed by any city agency in almost six years.
- The OLIG was also required to turn over our files to aldermen when our investigations were complete, prior to ultimate adjudication and prosecution.
Unceremoniously, the OLIG shut down due to a lack of funding and renewal in 2015. But, despite the absurdities that the OLIG was forced to operate under during its tenure, the OLIG staff and I believed in our mandate and mission and worked to try to make Chicago a better and corruption-free city.
How oversight can work
Despite all of the hurdles, the OLIG fulfilled its mandate in a number of ways, most visibly in the indictment of Alderman Cochran. Some important aspects made that possible:
- Independence: The OLIG fought hard to remain independent from the overreach of council on several occasions. The OLIG refused to allow aldermen to interfere in investigations and kept investigation information confidential.
- Pushback: On more than one occasion, the OLIG successfully fought off information grabs demanded by City Council members. Aldermen attempted to “audit” the OLIG to see—as they claim—if they could increase the OLIG budget. Part of this audit was gaining access to confidential files and investigations. Essentially, the targets of our investigations wanted to know who was telling us what and what we were working on. We could not—and did not—allow this.
- Transparency: The OLIG fought the battle of ethics and oversight in the public eye, not behind closed doors. We refused to go along with any back-room dealing and shirk our mission to save the office. I firmly believed that taxpayers have a right to know what their elected officials are saying and doing, especially when elected officials are determining their own oversight laws. This took away their advantage in determining the fates and outcomes of our investigations with taxpayers in the dark, as well as our mandates, responsibilities and, ultimately, our employment.
Alderman Cochran’s indictment was an example of the success an oversight agency can have. In the end, we took no pleasure in the fact that an alderman was indicted. But I am satisfied with the fact that despite the massive obstacles placed in the way of the OLIG, the job still got done.
Alderman Cochran’s indictment also shows the ethics reforms that are still desperately needed to fight corruption in city government and prevent it in the first place.
How oversight needs to work
First, Chicago’s archaic and weak ethics ordinance must be rewritten from beginning to end. Elected officials must be required to disclose full financial data to prevent conflicts of interest, penalties for ethics violations must be strengthened and enforced, and lobbyist loopholes must be eliminated. Lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to infiltrate City Hall by masking their titles or salary sources, or contact city officials via personal emails.
The law must also be written in a way that protects taxpayer interests, not government and individual players.
Second, the Chicago Board of Ethics (BOE) must be reformed and rebuilt. The BOE is in charge of enforcing ethics rules and laws for city employees and City Council. While it has recently gotten closer to finally being on the right path, for a very long time it turned a blind eye to corruption and protected Chicago’s politicians, rather than taxpayers. The BOE even helped write the law that required OLIG investigative files to be turned over to the aldermen under investigation—a practice unheard of in law enforcement.
Over years past, the BOE ignored investigations, changed rules and defended aldermen to allow them to bend and break the law. The absurd (initial) 2016 ruling that aldermen were entitled to discounted Cubs playoff tickets is just one of the latest example of the BOE’s unacceptable operation.
The BOE also refuses to put out annual reports detailing what work is coming out of their office—even though they are required by law to release annual reports. These reports must be issued and show in detail what ethics investigations are acted upon, which aldermen break rules and what punishments are handed down. Federal indictments can no longer be the only deterrent to corruption. The BOE must regain its credibility, not just in the eyes of oversight officials but in the view of taxpayers.
Finally, Chicago’s oversight offices should be consolidated and given more power and freedom to initiate investigations without interference from City Hall. There are currently five Offices of Inspector General in Chicago. There were seven separate offices just two years ago. All of these offices have different rules, policies and budgets governing them, which creates inefficiencies and unnecessary challenges to oversight.
Every inspector general in Chicago should be put into one larger office of investigations, with departments focusing on different government sectors and offices. This Office of Inspectors General should have an independent budget and the independent authority to conduct investigations. In other words, one office, one law, one standard, one budget.
The plain truth is that Chicago politicians don’t like to give oversight offices much authority or freedom. But with ethical and budget crises plaguing the city and no end in sight, oversight agencies must be joined and streamlined to maximize taxpayer dollars, efficiency and effectiveness.
And no matter how they are organized, all of Chicago’s oversight agencies must have the ability to release investigations publicly and allow taxpayers to know if their representatives are breaking the law.
Changing a broken system
Corruption in an apathetic Chicago has unfortunately become a mainstay and an accepted byproduct of city government. To people not familiar with Chicago government, it seems too absurd to believe, but to people who have lived within the system, it seems too engrained to ever change.
Longevity does not create legitimacy, and rampantness does not prevent reform.
Alderman Cochran’s indictment was the result of an investigation from a Chicago oversight office that was designed to fail. That shows that even in a noxiously corrupt government system like Chicago’s, corruption can be investigated and elected officials can be held accountable.
For Chicago’s government to become transparent and honest, taxpayers and voters need to recognize when progress is being made and demand reform to ensure it continues. With changes to ethics rules, oversight offices and government culture, Chicago can improve, corruption can become a rare and unacceptable anomaly, and the culture of opaque government can become a thing of the past.
In the end, Project Six and I take comfort in the belief that there are enough Chicagoans who care about transparency and good government. We will eventually win the battle to restore Chicago to where it should be, as opposed to the significant ethical failure it is today.