making local government more ethical

An IG-Compliance Battle in Chicago

Update: February 19, 2010 (see below)

This blog post is about Chicago, and things are more complicated in Chicago than in other American municipalities. So please read slowly and carefully.

According to an article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, the first deputy in the mayor's Office of Compliance resigned a few weeks after he and the office's executive director were found by the city's inspector general to have mishandled a 2008 sexual harassment complaint (e.g., they tried to find the accused another city job). The IG recommended that the mayor suspend the two men for thirty days without pay.

As with everything in Chicago, the backstory is all-important. Over thirty years ago, a federal court handed down what is known as the Shakman Decree, prohibiting political considerations in hiring and promotions for about 37,000 non-policy-making city jobs. The city's infamous patronage machine then went underground, and it wasn't until 2005 that the feds unearthed it, making numerous arrests (see my blog posts on this: 1 2).

According to an article in yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times, the Office of Compliance was formed in 2007 by the mayor, under his personal authority, "because he didn't trust then-Inspector General David Hoffman, who had repeatedly embarrassed the mayor." Embarrassing the mayor is a capital offense in Chicago.

And now it appears that the Office of Compliance has gone and embarrassed the mayor, as well. There is talk that the mayor is going to take away the office's authority over hiring, and give it to the IG.

Here's what the compliance director's lawyer has been saying about the IG's report: "This is a classic Chicago power grab. This report is politically motivated, childish and a waste of taxpayers' money."

Amazingly, the Shakman of the Shakman Decree is still involved, and there is a federal monitor of the city's hiring. According to the Sun-Times article, they have "accused [the compliance director] of ignoring blatant violations, covering up hiring irregularities he’s supposed to correct and failing to discipline employees who refuse to toe the line." Hence the mayor's embarrassment. He wants to look squeaky clean on patronage, and his own boys are muddying the waters.

There's another twist to the story. Remember the guy accused of sexual harassment, the excuse for this battle? Not only is he confined to a wheelchair and therefore covered by protections for the disabled. But according to the Sun-Times, he was also "stripped of his responsibilities in 2008 after blowing the whistle on alleged contract irregularities involving Motorola that cost taxpayers $2.25 million. The IG pressured City Hall to reverse the punishment."

Many other versions of the stories are being tossed around, but the bottom line is that whenever you split ethics enforcement up among a variety of agencies-- in this case, the IG, the Office of Compliance, and the Board of Ethics -- you are asking for trouble. You are especially asking for trouble when one or more of the agencies is directly responsible to one or more elected officials, and when they take different approaches (audit, compliance, conflicts) to the same matters.

A corporate-style office of compliance controlled by a mayor who, at the very least, did nothing about his city's patronage system has serious appearance problems, which is not a good way to change a large city government's deeply unethical culture. The mayor should have no authority over the city's hiring oversight. He would do best to use this occasion to close the compliance office down, even if he's doing it because he's been embarrassed.

Update: February 19, 2010
This battle has gone to court. The compliance director, after being suspended without pay for three months by the mayor, upon the IG's recommendation, has sued both of them, seeking an injunction against the suspension.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org
203-230-2548