PI Original Matthew Blake Thursday May 3rd, 2012, 5:52pm

Chicago City Watchdog In Limbo

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted this week a step his administration has taken to fight corruption: strengthening the city’s ethics ordinance. But Emanuel has not fulfilled a campaign pledge to strengthen the Chicago Inspector General’s office.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted this week a step his administration has taken to fight corruption, by strengthening the city’s ethics ordinance. But Emanuel has not fulfilled a campaign pledge to strengthen the Chicago Inspector General’s office, or IGO, the one part of city government that may actually investigate wrongdoing by Emanuel.

In fact, Emanuel and Chicago’s chief lawyer, Stephen Patton, are locked in a dispute with Inspector General Joseph Ferguson before the Illinois Supreme Court, which won't be heard until September at the earliest.

The case arguably gets to the heart of whether City Hall’s watchdog has any teeth. It concerns the Chicago Law Department not letting the IGO access documents it subpoenaed in a matter regarding a 2007 investigation into a no-bid city contract. The Law Department denied the documents, citing attorney-client privilege.

The city asserts that the mayor can resolve any dispute between the IGO and Corporation Counsel – even though it is the mayor’s office the IGO investigates.

Ferguson won the case in appellate court last April, two weeks before Emanuel was sworn in as mayor. Emanuel and Corporation Counsel Patton maintained the legal position of predecessor Richard Daley, and challenged the ruling – much to the chagrin of Ferguson.

“The Mayor has adopted wholesale the position of the prior Administration and taken it further in asserting that the IGO is not an independent agency, and the IGO is supervised by the Mayor,” contends Ferguson spokesman Jonathan Davey.

The mayor’s office did not return messages for this story.

City Hall had an internal investigation department for more than 50 years, but a meaningful IGO did not materialize until 2005 when Mayor Richard Daley appointed former U.S. Attorney David Hoffman as IG.

Hoffman used his four-year term to uncover numerous acts of corruption from city employees such as zoning and building inspectors. An active watchdog has largely continued since 2009, when Daley appointed Ferguson, another former U.S. Attorney.

Hoffman and Ferguson have been “very pro active” and “very effective in exposing various kinds of corruption and waste,” according to Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and current University of Illinois-Chicago political science professor. Simpson gave as an example a scathing 2008 audit that exposed rampant mismanagement and idling among Streets and Sanitation garbage crews.

However, the IGO has continually cited obstacles to doing a good job. Enter Emanuel.

Emanuel promised in his campaign to guarantee the IGO 1/10 of one percent of the city budget each year, so the mayor could not politically punish the IGO by gutting the office’s resources. Also, Emanuel pledged to expand jurisdiction so the IGO could investigate the Park District, Public Building Commission, and City Council.

These pledges won Emanuel the endorsement of Hoffman, but a year into office Emanuel has not acted on any of them.

Emanuel said at a press conference Monday that he has “plenty of time to deal with all aspects” of ethics and transparency in government and that he will get to the IGO pledges. An ethics reform task force appointed by the mayor is expected to make a second list of recommendations in July, but it is not known if the task force will address IGO issues.

Meanwhile, the IGO budget remains “entirely contingent upon the discretion of the mayor and thus remains vulnerable to political or institutional retribution,” Davey says.

Also, IG jurisdiction continues to be solely over the “core budget and related programs” says Davey. The jurisdiction issue emerged of late in the debate over Emanuel’s Infrastructure Trust ordinance.

Ferguson complained that the IG would legally not have oversight of the Trust or Trust projects beyond those in the core budget, unless Emanuel directly wrote such jurisdiction into the ordinance. The mayor did not do this, and the ordinance cleared City Council last week.

The most contentious issue, though, is the ongoing legal dispute.

In siding with Ferguson, Appellate Court Justice Robert E. Gordon noted that without subpoena enforcement the IGO is dependent on the graces of the very mayoral administration it investigates.

“The ordinance creating the IGO could not have been designed to tie the Inspector General’s hands in this way because in doing so, its investigative process would be meaningless,” Gordon stated.

Image: Flickr/Yooperann

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If the IGO is supervised by the Mayor's Office, then, it would seem,that the client privilege argument goes out of the window. If the Mayor's Office supervises the IG,then the IG,by extension, is the Mayor's Office, and should be privvy to any information that comes to the Mayor's Office.

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