| by Michael Graham

Over the past few months, a handful of Chicago officials have publicly opined on the fairness of Chicago’s ethics law, in particular how it defines a lobbyist.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson, Alderman Sophia King (4th Ward), former Alderman and current Metra Chairman Martin Oberman, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have all publicly warned that an overly broad definition of “lobbyist” could subject regular citizens to unwitting ethics violations, with the potential for hefty fines for simply talking to an elected official at the grocery store.

There are certainly a number of improvements and reforms that need to happen to the city’s ethics laws to ensure clarity and fairness. Unfortunately, Chicago officials’ newfound interest in the ethics code appears to have less to do with improving ethics in City Hall and more to do with ensuring the mayor and other Chicago politicians can continue to freely use their elected offices to benefit their friends and supporters.

Ferguson, King, Oberman and Emanuel, in critiquing the ethics code, all alluded to a recent ethics violation published by the Board of Ethics surrounding Alderman King’s husband, Alan King. In that case, the Board of Ethics voted 6-0 to find that King, who is also a close friend and heavy donor to Rahm Emanuel, acted as an unregistered lobbyist in spring of 2015.

In 2015, King, an attorney and DJ in Chicago, emailed Emanuel via Emanuel’s private, non-city email address (on which Emanuel regularly conducts city business). The email concerned Chosen Few House Music Picnic, a music event of which King is a part owner. King was requesting Rahm’s help in getting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ fence removed from the event site.

The Board of Ethics determined that because King was attempting to enlist Emanuel, in his official capacity as mayor, to advocate on his behalf before the Corps of Engineers, King was engaging in lobbying without being properly registered. This was not a situation where King was merely discussing his personal business with the mayor; he actively attempted (and apparently succeeded) in engaging the City of Chicago to advocate on his behalf before the federal government. That is lobbying.

Conceivably, under the current definition of “lobbyist,” a small-business owner could be considered an unregistered lobbyist simply by discussing aspects of his/her business with an alderman or the mayor.

But no one, including the Board of Ethics, has actually proposed interpreting, or enforcing, the ethics code this way.

The disingenuous appall from Emanuel and his subordinates is a sign of deep-seated rot that has been at the core of Chicago governance for far too long: the belief that it is acceptable for elected officials to bestow benefits and privileges upon their friends and supporters.

Emanuel was elected to advocate on the behalf of all Chicagoans, not so he could get the federal government to remove a fence so his friend could sell some extra tickets to his concert.

Elected officials should not feel comfortable taking calls from friends who ask them to utilize their power of elected office to secure them benefits, and they certainly shouldn’t feel comfortable publicly defending that practice while criticizing the Board of Ethics as some imaginary boogieman just waiting to catch elected officials in unfair ethical traps. It’s a telling sign that the only people who appear to be echoing the mayor are his own political appointees.

What is most disturbing in all this, however, is that the public critique of the Board of Ethics decision has been utilized to slyly suggest the ethics code requires a rewrite.

The City Council and the mayor already largely write the rules that place limitations on their own behavior, yet—as has happened before—at first sight of an inconvenient ethics ruling, protests of “unfair” and “overzealous” enforcement erupt.

Politicians modifying ethics rules because they find them burdensome would be problematic in any city, let alone one that has Chicago’s shameful history of endemic corruption. Any revision to the ethics code needs to be one that strengthens the ordinance—not water it down. The mayor and his allies may criticize the Board of Ethics, but the rest of Chicago should laud them for enforcing the ethics code and holding our governmental officials accountable.

UPDATE

On Wednesday, July 19, the Board of Ethics cited another five cases where illegal lobbying was done via the Mayor’s private email account. One person who was cited for the lobbying settled the case with the Board of Ethics and paid a $25,000 fine.

The Board of Ethics also fined Alan King $2,500 for his illegal lobbying of the Mayor via a private email account.