Exclusive: City Council Watchdog Looks at Top Alderman

Ald. Ed BurkeLast November, the Chicago City Council appointed its first ever legislative inspector general, a position intended to act as a watchdog over aldermen.

Chicago Tonight has exclusively learned that despite limitations and a minuscule budget, the office has opened 20 investigations into misconduct by city aldermen or their staff. And powerful finance committee chairman, Ald. Ed Burke, could soon be one of them.

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Meanwhile, Ald. Burke has been in a public spat with the city's inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, who is the watchdog for the mayor's office, city departments and city workers. He asked Burke to turn over records outlining more than $100 million the city makes every year in workers' compensation payments. Ferguson wants to see if there's any waste, fraud, abuse or corruption in these payments.

Ald. Burke has sole control over the records. Burke refused to turn over the records, citing that Ferguson has no jurisdiction over the City Council. That’s where Faisal Kahn enters the picture. Khan says he is confident that HE has jurisdiction over Burke’s records. Now, he has to submit a formal statement to the finance committee stating as much. Khan says once he does so, he will investigate Burke’s workers' comp records.

“Absolutely. If I have jurisdiction and I deem that there needs to be an investigation into the database, I can certainly move forward,” said Khan.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel declined to take a side in the dispute between Ald. Burke and Ferguson, but did have this to say about the worker’s comp system:

“My budget is aggressive about reforming the workers' comp. We are aggressively pursuing $15 million in savings from workers' comp. I don't need a report to do that. I know that it needs reform,” said Emanuel. “And we've put in place the type of things that will result in $15 million in savings from workers' comp. As it relates to jurisdiction, I believe the parties should work through whether that's legislative IG, the IG for the city, and the chairman…those issues. I'm focused on making sure we get the savings we need.”

Taking on Ald. Burke is a daunting task, but not the only thing on Khan’s plate. He also released a progress report on Monday to the city’s ethics board saying that he has opened 20 investigations into wrongdoing or misconduct by either aldermen or their staff members. One case has been turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s office, and another to Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

While Khan did not reveal the names of the people being investigated, he is looking into the following potential acts of misconduct: abuse of political authority, prohibited political activity, false filings and campaign violations. Reading between the lines, these could mean solicitation of improper campaign contributions, doing political work on city time, or improperly putting relatives on the city payroll. Khan says the investigations run the gamut from minor to severe. Faisal Khan

“We're talking about everything. We're talking about low level things. We're talking about simple administrative violations up to criminal conduct. We look at everything, and that's really important that we do do that,” said Khan. “And would I like more resources and investigators? Absolutely. There's no one who would say otherwise. But I deal with what I have, and we keep these cases moving and try to collect as much information as possible.”

The funding for Khan’s job only allows him to work 19 hours a week. He says he needs enough funding to be able to work 30 hours to close some of the investigations. Khan says he has also put a call out for interns to work in his office.

There has also been criticism that the office is toothless because, in order for a complaint to be filed, the complainant has to sign their name to a written document, which might repel whistleblowers who don’t want to be identified. But Khan says the person signing the complaint doesn’t have to be a first party witness; it could be anyone who read an article in the newspaper and decided they wanted to bring a formal complaint. So he says he is NOT handicapped.

If Khan does conclude wrongdoing, the authority he has to actually punish someone is murky. For the cases he is not turning over to the U.S. attorney or the Cook County State's Attorney, the case goes the city's board of ethics where Khan can recommend punishment. In one case, he recommended a city employee be terminated.

Mayor Emanuel has commissioned an ethics task force, and they are expected to deal with the issue of who has authority to cast the final discipline on aldermen.

View the Legislative Inspector General's Semi-Annual Report in the PDF below.

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