| by Orlando Ortiz

Last week, the Chicago Board of Ethics (BOE) told Chicago aldermen—and taxpayers—that the renewed proposal to weaken financial disclosure rules for independent contractors should be scrapped.

This new BOE rebuke of aldermen is the result of the second attempt by Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) and a small group of fellow aldermen to allow independent contractors to hide financial information from oversight agencies and taxpayers.

The first attempt to weaken these laws failed a City Council vote after significant pushback from good-government experts. Hopefully for taxpayers and government transparency’s sake, the second attempt follows suit.

The first attempt

On March 1, Board of Ethics Chairman William Conlon informed roughly 45 independent contractors employed by aldermen that they had to comply with a June 1 deadline to file their financial interest statement (FIS) with the BOE or risk facing penalties.

The FIS is a 16-question, two-page disclosure form that all non-clerical City Council employees, including independent contractors, are required to complete. Even though Chicago’s form is much less thorough and complete than other major cities’ disclosure requirements, the form is designed to reveal potential conflicts of interests and avoid any possible ethical violations an employee or contractor might be committing.

In his notice, Conlon warned employees and contractors about the penalties they would face if they didn’t file their statements on time. The penalties for a late statement include:

Then in April, in response to Conlon’s notice, Alderman Hairston spearheaded an effort to weaken the independent contractor definition in the city’s Ethics Ordinance (and make the change retroactive to January 1, 2017). If passed, Hairston’s proposal would exempt the 45 independent contractors that the BOE already identified from requirements to file disclosure forms.

Hairston’s reason for trying to exempt independent contractors from disclosing basic financial information—which every other city employee is required to do—was that it would violate the privacy of the contractors working for the aldermen. Hairston claimed that even though independent contractors working for aldermen are being paid by city tax dollars, they should not be required to disclose what their other sources of income are, because information like a contractor’s client list (or other information that could reveal conflicts of interest) is “none of anybody’s business.”

Conlon strongly criticized Hairston’s proposal for its “unhealthy secrecy” and as an affront to good government. Conlon also pointed out that with the existing laws, independent contractors were not being forced to do anything other than comply with the city’s Ethics Ordinance. Conlon stated, “The reality is, I believe, in city government—where they are being paid in part from city funds—they have a responsibility to disclose publicly any associations that … are called for on the statement of economic disclosure. … The light of day is a pretty healthy commodity on issues like this.”

Never fans of public pressure, even though they unanimously passed the proposal in the Rules Committee, aldermen voted down the proposal in April’s City Council meeting by a 24 to 21 vote (two aldermen were absent, while three others were recorded as not voting).

After the proposal failed, Hairston complained that the BOE was over the line in its criticism of the proposal and insisted she would not stop her fight to weaken the Ethics Ordinance.

The second attempt

Keeping true to her promise, In September, Alderman Hairston co-sponsored a new ordinance with Alderman Ricardo Muñoz (22nd Ward) that would allow independent contractors making less than $100,000 or working fewer than 500 hours in the previous or current calendar year exempt from having to file financial disclosure forms when they’re hired by an alderman as a city contractor.

In reaction to Hairston’s new proposal, the BOE again made clear their opposition to any weakening of the city’s Ethics Ordinance. The BOE blasted the ordinance as not “good government,” because it would “obscure information as to potential conflicts of interest that individuals who are being paid with taxpayer money, or who have the ability to influence aldermanic decisions, may have.” The BOE also criticized the notion that only those who exceed the $100,000 salary/500-hour threshold must complete their FIS.

The second proposal has not been scheduled for a committee or full council vote yet.

Strengthen—don’t water down—Chicago’s ethics laws

It’s never a good sign when the city’s ethics agency publicly comes out forcefully against an ethics proposal. That is especially true in Chicago, where the BOE has not always been so willing to criticize—or even discuss—ethics laws and issues in the public venue.

Many of the changes that Chairman Conlon has put into place have helped to shine a light on the problems with many of the city’s ethics laws. Hopefully the new, more-proactive BOE continues.

It’s troubling that a City Council member would not only try multiple times to water down the city’s ethics laws, but then when challenged, attack the city’s oversight agency tasked with upholding the city’s ethics laws. While there are many legitimate criticisms that can be made about the city’s financial disclosure forms or oversight laws, the claim that they’re too strict is absurd.

Just this last year, Alderman Brendan Reilly’s (42nd Ward) acting chief of staff (who was also a registered lobbyist) resigned after it was revealed that she took advantage of the ambiguity of the ethics code. This is just one example of the need for a stronger Ethics Ordinance in Chicago.

Any attempt to weaken an already-watered-down Ethics Ordinance should immediately be called out by taxpayers and good-government advocates. No alderman should be fighting for special carve-outs for a select few individuals that taxpayers otherwise would have no way of knowing whether they were acting in the best interests of the city versus their own personal benefit.

Exempting independent contractors from their legal requirements does not make sense from a good-government standpoint or a public policy position. Chicago City Council should reject this attempt just like the previous one.