Report: Aldermen Got $282,000 in Illegal Campaign Contributions in 2013

City Council Oversight to End on Monday

A report from the City Council Office of the Legislative Inspector General concludes that 29 aldermen took in a total of $282,000 in illegal campaign donations in 2013. The donations, ranging anywhere from $500 to in excess of $50,000, were found to have violated the city’s ethics ordinance, according to Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan.

The ordinance limits aldermen from receiving campaign contributions in excess of $1,500 from “persons who have done business with the City or its sister agencies within the previous four years, persons who are seeking to do business with the city or its sister agencies, and lobbyists. “ 

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“Council isn’t upset about needing a new L.I.G. They’re just not going to find one.”

–Faisal Khan

The ordinance defines “doing business,” as receiving more than $10,000 in a calendar year from the city. The L.I.G.’s office would not say who the aldermen were, but assistant Legislative Inspector General Michael Graham told "Chicago Tonight" that the office found “four aldermen that had $50,000 or more in questionable contributions.”

The money overwhelmingly came from developers and real estate companies, according to Graham.

Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward) told "Chicago Tonight" that he was one of the 29 aldermen that violated the rules. He received a letter from Khan demanding that he return $1,500 in contributions from his landlord, Dave Cwik. Sposato accepted $3,000 in campaign money from Cwik in 2013 ($1,500 over the limit). Cwik is technically doing business with the city because Sposato is leasing taxpayer-funded office space from him. Sposato says Cwik is a friend, and that he wasn’t aware of any violation.

Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward)Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward) “I didn’t know that, by law, he was considered a contractor with the city,” Sposato said. “I returned the money as soon as I got the letter.”

Graham says most aldermen had similarly small violations.

“A lot of aldermen aren’t watching their books very closely because they’ve never had this scrutinized very closely,” Graham said. “But others—the bigger violators— seem like they are willfully violating the law.” 

Aldermen Joe Moreno (1st Ward) and Joe Moore (49th Ward) confirmed they also received letters from Khan.

“It was so vague. I couldn’t tell you what he was accusing me of,” Moore said. “He said there were contributors on the vendor list, but I couldn’t find any of them. Could one or two have slipped through the cracks? Perhaps.”

The Chicago Board of Ethics filed the initial campaign finance complaint and sent it to Khan’s office for further review and verification. Khan says the office has started to look at questionable campaign contributions from 2014 and estimates that the number will be “far higher than 2013.” But he says his review of the numbers will end on Monday, when his controversial four-year term as the city’s first legislative inspector general ends.

Khan says he believes the City Council is purposely dragging its feet on a replacement because it doesn’t actually want oversight.

“They’ve had months and months to make sure there’s a replacement up and running so this office could move over smoothly to a different operation,” Khan said. “That’s really the true motivation here. Council isn’t upset about needing a new L.I.G. They’re just not going to find one.”

In the video below, Khan talks about the search for his replacement. 

Aldermen have universally acknowledged that the office was largely feckless in its ability to investigate and oversee them. The rules prohibited the office from starting any of its own investigations and required whistleblowers to sign their name to a complaint.

Other aldermen said that Khan himself was an inept investigator. Moore, whom Khan accused of running a ghost pay-rolling scheme, mockingly referred to him as “Inspector Clouseau.”

An ordinance to empower the City’s better resourced executive Inspector General Joe Ferguson to keep watch over aldermen has been sitting in the City Council’s Rules Committee since it was reintroduced in April. That committee’s chairperson, Alderman Michelle Harris (8th Ward), says the votes aren’t there to pass the ordinance, despite more than half of City Council signing on as co-sponsors.  

Sources have repeatedly told "Chicago Tonight" that longtime aldermen Ed Burke (14th Ward) and Carrie Austin (34th Ward) are holding that legislation up. Austin has publicly opposed oversight from Ferguson’s office.

During a recent question and answer session, "Chicago Tonight" asked Burke what he felt should happen to the office now that Khan’s term has expired. Burke abruptly ended the proceedings and said “Thank you ladies and gentlemen,” and walked off without answering the question. (Watch the exchange below.)

Moreno penned a letter to Harris on Friday asking her to call the ordinance for a vote, saying that Ferguson was the “most qualified” inspector general to handle the job of overseeing aldermen.

Khan himself says he believes Ferguson should take over his duties.

Harris has said a panel would be convened to select a new legislative inspector general to take over for Khan.

Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward)Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward) “I would be vigorously opposed to that,” Moore said. “We’re going down the same rabbit hole. To have a bifurcated system like this is ridiculous. We’ll find another bozo like the one we’ve had.”

Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th Ward) says he will introduce an ordinance on Wednesday that would give the Legislative Inspector General’s office the same investigative powers that Ferguson’s office has.

But Susan Garrett, head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says the lack of action on a replacement is “disconcerting.”

“It’s very dangerous,” she said. “It’s almost as if they are operating on their own without any oversight. They’ve been talking about this for years. It’s not as if this is a surprise event. There’s been absolutely no effort to put in place a system that’s transparent.”

Alderman Sposato says he agrees.

“We’re embarrassing ourselves,” he said. “I mean, we don’t have a track record for honesty.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel remains non-committal on a solution, saying only that “City Council cannot go back to the days of no oversight.”

But those days are set to return after Monday.

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