| by Orlando Ortiz and Michael Graham

In 2015, Chicago Alderman Marty Quinn (13th Ward) illegally spent almost $25,000 of taxpayer dollars on a motor vehicle that City Council members are explicitly prohibited from purchasing with taxpayer funds.

Despite this illegal purchase being initially rejected by the Chicago Department of Finance (DOF), it appears Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration stepped in to override the rejection and allow the purchase to go through.


The aldermanic expense allowance

One of the perks Chicago’s elected officials enjoy is their aldermanic expense allowance. This money is intended for “ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the performance of an alderman’s official duties.”[i]

Every year, the city allots each alderman $97,000 for their expense allowance. The combined total amount for all aldermanic expenses amounts to nearly $5 million annually in the total city budget.[ii]

Chicago’s Municipal Code sets guidelines and restrictions on what aldermen are permitted to purchase with their aldermanic expense accounts, and the DOF is tasked with enforcing those limits and restrictions of taxpayer dollars.[iii]

However, Chicago’s archaic process of submitting handwritten vouchers for doling out money through the aldermanic expense accounts opens the door for abuse by city officials and makes it possible for taxpayer dollars to be funneled for personal and political expenses of Chicago’s leaders.

When an alderman wants to access aldermanic expense account funds, he or she sends a signed voucher to the city comptroller, who is housed within the DOF.[iv] If the voucher is for a valid expense, the comptroller is required to disburse the requested funds. Funds can be used as direct payments to vendors or as refunds to the alderman for payments already made.

Chicago’s Municipal Code contains an explicit list detailing what can and cannot be purchased with expense account funds.[v] The list has 23 categories of allowable uses for the expense allowance and eight prohibited purchases.

These lists are set out below. For an alderman to legally buy something with his or her expense allowance, the purchase must not be on the list of prohibited purchases and also must fall into one of the allowable categories.


ALLOWABLE USES
(1) Lease of alderman’s ward office (13) Meeting costs for public meetings
(2) Lease/rent post office box (14) Lease or rental of motor vehicle used in connection to official duties
(3) Telephones and related equipment/service (15) Parking/maintenance fees for motor vehicles used in connection to official duties
(4) Insurance (16) Reimbursement for public transportation
(5) Newspapers and other useful publications (17) Transportation and travel expenses
(6) Stationery and office supplies (18) Consultant/professional services
(7) Postage, shipping and messenger fees (19) Educational expenses (i.e., seminars, training)
(8) Office equipment and furnishing (20) Expenses related to hiring staff
(9) Utilities (21) Publication of a newsletter
(10) Office maintenance expenses (22) Reasonable financial fees for administration of alderman’s expense allowance
(11) Computer and data processing services/equipment (23) Miscellaneous, ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection to official duties
(12) Printing/photocopying equipment

 

PROHIBITED USES
(1) Purchase of real property (5) Expenses related to any business, profession or occupation in which the alderman/relatives/staff are engaged
(2) Capital improvements to leased or rented property (6) The direct monetary benefit of an alderman or any of his or her relatives
(3) Purchase of a motor vehicle (7) Advertising, except for public meetings and employment opportunities
(4) Personal, political or campaign-related expenses (8) Trophies, awards, gifts or donations of any kind

 


Alderman Quinn and city staff

Alderman Quinn represents the city’s 13th Ward on the Southwest Side. Quinn was first elected to the 13th Ward in 2011 and then again in 2015, both times running unopposed. There were many people involved in the back-and-forth discussion of this voucher between the alderman’s office, the city and the Mayor’s Office. A listing of all those involved include:[vi]

  • Jason Yost, deputy comptroller at the Department of Finance.
  • Carol Hamburger, managing deputy comptroller at the Department of Finance.
  • Erin Keane, first deputy director at the Department of Finance.
  • Alexandra (Alex) Holt, director of the Office of Budget Management.
  • Farzin Parang, intergovernmental affairs officer with the Mayor’s Office and assistant to the mayor.
  • Moeen Zahdan, staff assistant to Alderman Quinn.
  • Kevin Quinn, program specialist for Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan*

*Kevin Quinn (Alderman Quinn’s brother) is not a city employee but rather a state employee working in Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan’s office. Alderman Marty Quinn and Speaker Madigan share office space for their respective ward and district offices.


The Voucher

On April 24, 2015, the DOF received an aldermanic expense voucher request totaling $24,992.50 from Moeen Zahdan, an employee of 13th Ward Alderman Marty Quinn.[vii] The invoice was for a 2015 Polaris brand Brutus HD PTO Deluxe, along with some additional accessories, such as an attachable snowplow.[viii]

The Brutus is a multipurpose, diesel-powered utility vehicle with an enclosed, climate-controlled cab. Polaris bills the vehicle as “the most versatile … utility vehicle in its class,” able to “plow and blow snow, move dirt, level surfaces, lift pallets, mow lawns or large fields, and sweep sidewalks.”[ix]

Polaris Brutus Utility Vehicle

The physical voucher, which was eventually paid, contains a series of contradictory handwritten notes, which have since been crossed out, that show the voucher was initially rejected. Deputy Comptroller Jason Yost initialed a note, saying, “Prohibited by Municipal Code—do not pay.” But then another note, also initialed by Yost, indicates the voucher was “approved by Mayor’s Office & E. Keane [Erin Keane, first deputy director at the DOF].” This note, like the previous one calling for the voucher not to be paid, is crossed out.

The voucher contains one last handwritten note, this one not crossed out, stating, “Approved by OBM [Office of Budget and Management] 5/8/15.”


The invoice debate

The confusion surrounding this illegal expense, and many of the problems with Chicago’s expense reporting system, can be seen in a flurry of email activity between employees of the DOF and the OBM.

The Brutus voucher was initially received by the DOF on April 24, 2015. On April 27, Zahdan emailed Yost, inquiring about the voucher. Yost responded, saying he would look into it. Zahdan followed up the next day, asking again if the voucher had been paid.

On April 29, Zahdan sent Yost another email, cc’ing Alderman Quinn and Kevin Quinn, stating that Zahdan had been “informed that the voucher … was ‘rejected’ and ‘prohibited by the Municipal Code.’”[x] Zahdan demanded further explanation.

The same day, Yost began a dialogue with his superiors, saying, “We received a voucher from 13th Ward … to pay for a motorized vehicle.”[xi] Yost’s description of the purchase as a “motorized vehicle” is telling. That description indicates Yost believed the purchase was prohibited by the Municipal Code, as purchasing “motor vehicles” with the aldermanic expense allowance is explicitly forbidden. This will also explain the handwritten note “prohibited by Municipal Code—do not pay” that was initialed by Yost on the payment voucher.

Project Six obtained a series of heavily or totally redacted emails which indicate that on April 29, Erin Keane, Carol Hamburger and Jason Yost exchanged at least seven emails among themselves discussing the Brutus voucher. The final email, from Keane to Hamburger, sent at 4:40 p.m., states, “Talked to Alex [Holt, Budget Director] and she would be happy if you want to call the alderman to discuss the issues and policy reasons for the denial. She is letting Farzin know.”[xii] This email appears to indicate that the Department of Finance, as well as Budget Director Alex Holt, believed the voucher could not legally be paid.

After this email chain ends on April 29, 2015, it’s clear that the city was in firm agreement that the voucher not be paid and as a matter of course would explain to Alderman Quinn why the voucher would not be paid.

At some point after April 29 and before the voucher is marked “mailed” on May 15, the city changed course and ultimately paid the expense.


Timeline of Events

  • April 24, 2015
    • Aldermanic expense voucher 151551533 is submitted and stamped “Received” by the Department of Finance. The voucher is for a $24,992.50 expense for a 2015 Polaris brand Brutus HD PTO Deluxe from Shorewood Home and Auto, prepared by Zahdan.
  • April 27, 2015
    • 10:11 a.m.—Zahdan emails Deputy Comptroller Yost regarding three vouchers that were submitted and had not yet been paid. The voucher for Shorewood Home and Auto for the Polaris is among those mentioned.
    • 10:17 a.m.—Yost responds that he will look for the vouchers.
  • April 28, 2015
    • 1:25 p.m.—Zahdan emails Yost, asking if the vouchers were located, paid and mailed.
  • April 29, 2015
    • 11:04 a.m.—After a telephone conversation with another DOF employee, Zahdan emails Yost while cc’ing Alderman Quinn and Kevin Quinn questioning why the voucher from Shorewood Home and Auto was not paid. Zahdan insists that Alderman Quinn would like further explanation and wants to know who can give authorization.
    • 1:17 p.m.—Yost emails DOF First Deputy Director Keane and cc’s Managing Deputy Comptroller Hamburger, alerting them about the $25,000 voucher for a motorized vehicle and includes an image of the Polaris. Portions of this email were redacted from the FOIA request by Project Six.
    • 2:07 p.m.—Keane emails Yost and cc’s Hamburger that she does not think it’s a problem for the city to pay the voucher and “assumes the prohibition was intended for actual cars and not machines used for street cleaning.” She talked to intergovernmental affairs’ officer Farzin Parang, who is OK with it but will run it by Alexandra Holt as well.
    • 2:22 p.m.—Hamburger emails Keane regarding the voucher; it was also redacted for Project Six’s FOIA request.
    • 2:36 p.m.—Keane responds to Hamburger in an email acknowledging that those are all good questions, which is why she called Parang. Keane relays to Hamburger that Parang stated he has purchased other equipment and the union (the email does not identify the specific union) left him alone. Keane also writes that she wanted Parang to know that she wanted OBM’s approval as well.
    • 4:33 p.m.—Keane forwards the email chain from Zahdan to Yost and an attachment of the aldermanic expense code to OBM Director Holt.
    • 4:40 p.m.—Keane emails Hamburger, writing that she talked to Holt, who would be happy if Hamburger called the alderman to discuss the issues and policy reasons for denial.
  • April 29, 2015
    • The voucher is tagged approved by the Mayor’s Office and E. Keane with the initials JDY. At some point, this is lined out.
  • May 8, 2015
    • The voucher is tagged approved by OBM and initialed with JDY.
  • May 15, 2015
    • Markings indicate the voucher was mailed (paid) out of the comptroller’s office.

 


The problem

The purchase of a Brutus clearly violates the rule against aldermanic expense allowance used to purchase “motor vehicles.”[xiii] The Brutus is a one-ton, diesel-power utility vehicle. It would require significant mental gymnastics to come to the conclusion that a Brutus does not qualify as a “motor vehicle.”

However, even if Alderman Quinn and the Department of Finance tried to claim that a Brutus somehow doesn’t qualify as a motor vehicle, the purchase still would not be allowed because it does not fall into one of the categories of allowable expenses.

It can’t fall into Category 14, “Lease or rental of motor vehicle used in connection to official duties,”[xiv] because the Brutus wasn’t leased or rented—it was purchased. The city claimed to Project Six that the Brutus represented a miscellaneous, ordinary and necessary expense for the alderman[xv] However, the city already provides city residents with snow removal and street sweeping services—aka what a $25,000 Brutus can be used for—at no expense to aldermen.

The Brutus cannot realistically fit into any of the 23 allowable uses of the aldermanic expense allowance.

While it is certainly troubling that Alderman Quinn believed he was entitled to purchase a $25,000 Brutus with his aldermanic expense allowance, equally problematic is the role the Mayor’s Office appears to have played in forcing the purchase through.

Why did the Mayor’s Office get involved in a routine expense voucher for a city alderman that the appropriate department was processing? Has the Mayor’s Office gotten involved in any other expense vouchers for city employees? If so, has the Mayor’s Office overridden any other expenses deemed to violate city law?

We asked the city all these questions to which they responded:

The Office of Budget and Management, Department of Finance and Mayor’s Office regularly work together to evaluate Aldermanic expenses in accordance with the City of Chicago Municipal Code. Regarding this specific case, after review from all three above mentioned departments, this expense was determined valid and in accordance with the Municipal Code.

We asked the city what specific part of the city’s municipal code the purchase of a Brutus would fall under and they responded that purchasing a Brutus vehicle fell under Chicago Municipal Code 2-8-050 B23 which states that aldermen can use their aldermanic expense account for the:

Payment of miscellaneous, ordinary and necessary expenses incurred in connection with the performance of an alderman’s official duties.

If tasks like snow removal, lawn mowing and whatever else the Brutus can be used for, is a “miscellaneous, ordinary and necessary expense” of a Chicago City Council member, then there’s conceivably nothing that isn’t the duty of an alderman.

By the city’s logic in this case, nearly any car, piece of equipment or pet project could be paid for—no matter how redundant or unnecessary—with taxpayer money, even if it violates the city’s code for what aldermen are allowed to spend tax dollars on.

Project Six also sought, through FOIA, copies of any vouchers since 2011 that were initially refused for payment but the DOF said they have no way of tracking vouchers that are refused for payment.[xvi]

Project Six also requested any legal advice or guidance that the DOF may have obtained that would justify the purchase of the Brutus. The DOF tersely responded by sending a hyperlink to Chicago’s Municipal Code[xvii] and stating, “The Municipal Code would be the only legal advice or guidelines … that DOF and OBM rely upon when determining if an expense comports with the Municipal Code.”[xviii]

When Project Six contested this FOIA response through the attorney general, the DOF stated that it had “relied on the actual Municipal Code language as the only legal guidance or legal advice … to determine whether a proposed expense was allowable.”[xix] So, despite the fact that the purchase not only appeared to violate the prohibition on purchasing motor vehicles, the city sought no legal counsel, whether through the Law Department or through the DOF’s internal legal department, to justify the expenditure of $25,000 of taxpayer money on a highly questionable purchase.

The City did not release any additional communications that occurred between April 29 and May 15 that could potentially explain the DOF’s changed position.


Transparently and responsibly spending taxpayer dollars

The city reimbursing reasonable expenses for aldermen (or the mayor, or any elected official) can allow for an active and responsive City Council. But aldermen using expense accounts as ways to fund their own pet projects or fulfill wish lists is unacceptable.

This is not an example of proper spending procedures being carried out and respected by city leaders—this is an example of city elected officials attempting to strong-arm and override proper checks and balances.

Alderman Quinn spending nearly $25,000 of tax money on a Brutus clearly violated the law and multiple city agencies raised red flags regarding the invoice before the purchase was authorized. But despite all that, it was pushed through.

The city should be investigating any and every report of aldermanic expense account abuse. This is not a rare problem in City Hall—too many members of City Council have been sent to prison for abusing the trust that taxpayers put in them to enrich themselves.

Chicago should give a full view of how tax dollars are being spent—or attempted to be spent—and how the city’s elected leaders are utilizing tax dollar-funded resources. Installing a digital expense request system is the easiest way for the city to transparently streamline how it processes and analyzes the expense requests for every city employee.

Taxpayers deserve to know that the city’s resources are going toward making Chicago a better and more prosperous place for everyone, not just those who can cheat a check from City Hall.


ENDNOTES

[i] Municipal Code of Chicago 2-8-050(a)

[ii] https://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/obm/supp_info/2017%20Budget/2017.Budget.Overview.pdf

[iii] Municipal Code of Chicago 2-8-060

[iv] Municipal Code of Chicago 2-32-010

[v] Municipal Code of Chicago 2-8-050(b)-(c)

[vi] City Employees can be found at https://data.cityofchicago.org/Administration-Finance/Current-Employee-Names-Salaries-and-Position-Title/xzkq-xp2w/data

[vii] See Reference Packet Page 1.

[viii] See Reference Packet Page 2.

[ix] http://www.polaris.com/en-us/commercial/brutus/brutus-hd-pto-deluxe

[x] See Reference Packet Page 8.

[xi] See Reference Packet Page 7.

[xii] See Reference Packet Page 6.

[xiii] Municipal Code of Chicago 2-8-050(c)(3)

[xiv] Municipal Code of Chicago 2-8-050(b)(14)

[xv] Municipal Code of Chicago 2-8-050(b)(23)

[xvi] See Reference Packet Page 11.

[xvii] See Reference Packet Page 12.

[xviii] See Reference Packet Page 16.

[xix] See Reference Packet Page 18.

Evidence

Project Six evidence packet

Brutus invoice, city emails and exchanges between Project Six and the State Attorney General