Burke Scandal Spurs Flurry of Reform Proposals
The political fallout has been fast and furious in the wake of federal corruption charges against Ald. Ed Burke, who officially submitted his resignation as chairman of the Finance Committee on Monday.
Burke held the post for decades, and through it, amassed unmatched power and influence.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, aldermen and candidates for mayor have laid out major ethics proposals that could radically change the business of City Council. Chief among them: moving the city’s obscure $100 million workers’ compensation program away from the Finance Committee and into the executive branch of government. Reformers have been calling for such a move for years, but now the mayor and others are getting behind it. The mayor has also now echoed reformers’ calls for a forensic audit of the whole program because Burke has run it with no oversight.
And there are proposals to strengthen Rule 14, meaning aldermen will now have to be fully transparent on why they’re recusing themselves from a vote and they’ll have to spell out their conflict of interest. Burke has invoked this rule hundreds of time without explanation as to why. There are also proposals to ban aldermen from having outside jobs, and proposals to strengthen the power of Inspector General Joe Ferguson to be able to audit council committees and enforce subpoenas in court.
In a series of dueling press conferences Monday morning, aldermen said this could finally be the moment for generational change to the culture of corruption in Chicago.
“We are for the reform of Chicago, we’ve been fighting for this all along,” said Ald. Toni Foulkes (16th Ward). “Something is happening in Chicago. Things are turning around. Businesses as usual is not going to happen. It’s a new day, it’s a new day. We are not all crooks. We are for our Chicago residents.”
The workers’ compensation program has been run by Burke without any oversight; even a spokeperson for the city’s CFO said they do not know much about the financials of the program.
There have been investigations over the years into whether clouted employees got quality disability benefits while non-clouted employees got lesser benefits. There are contracts that have been let out without any bidding, and there are lawsuits against it.
One is by a group of firefighters and paramedics who allege that the city brought in a third party to administer their workers’ comp claims. When that happened, the approval rate for injured employees to get benefits went from nearly 100 percent to 22 percent. They say that violates their collective bargaining contract.
And yet, another plaintiff in another lawsuit says the cost of workers’ compensation has nearly doubled between 2011 and now, going from a cost of $66 million to $114 million, and that Burke has hidden funding in different parts of the city budget and has budgeted employee salaries outside of the Finance Committee.
A political gadfly says he hopes this forthcoming audit will look into these things.
“Fraud, misappropriation of public funds,” said Jay Stone, a former candidate for aldermen and mayor. “The fraud would be committed by members of the committee on finance or workers’ compensation employees, because Ald. Burke just let them make up job titles that weren’t official, that they weren’t hired to do.”
And on Friday, Emanuel got asked why it took a federal criminal charge for some of these changes to be made. He said he tried some changes in the past but could only go so far.
“You have a whole host of things you have to get done as mayor, not one,” Emanuel said. “You have to make a series of judgements on what you have to get done on education, on finances, to fix pensions. And when you weigh all of these things, nothing will stay the same.”
As far as the fallout on the race for mayor, candidate Toni Preckwinkle now says she is giving all the money Burke raised for her at a fundraiser away. She says she “won’t have her name dragged through the mud,” with charges of being a Burke crony.
She also says she has stripped Burke of his authority in the Democratic Party to slate judicial candidates, a power that helped him shape the courts in Cook County and Illinois.
Also, a video has surfaced with Burke and Susana Mendoza, with Mendoza saying Burke is “the reason she is a state representative.”
Mayor candidate Bill Daley has also unveiled ethics proposals, including calling for the reduction of City Council members from 50 aldermen to 15 aldermen, something that would take state law to change.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz