The Chicago Board of Ethics voted unanimously on Monday to find that there is probable cause to believe that Ald. Howard Brookins (21st Ward) violated the city’s Governmental Ethics Ordinance by defending clients — including former Ald. Proco Joe Moreno — in criminal cases involving the Chicago Police Department.
Brookins will have a chance to challenge the board’s determination, which could result in fines ranging between $200 to $5,000 that could be assessed daily. If the board determines that Brookins violated the ordinance, the South Side alderman could appeal that decision to the Cook County Circuit Court.
Attorney Brendan Schiller, who represents Brookins, said the board exceeded its authority in investigating Brookins’ conduct and finding probable cause that he violated the ethics ordinance without an investigation by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, which Schiller said was required.
However, the Ethics Board can find violations and levy fines in cases that do not require a “factual investigation” and where an ethics violation is apparent, according to the regulations that govern the board.
The board can act on publicly available documents, such as Brookins’ notice to the court that he was Moreno’s attorney, and that does not constitute an investigation but an act to “adjudicate … alleged violations of the City Governmental Ethics Ordinance,” in accordance with its rules.
The Ethics Board ruled in September 2019 that aldermen face “diverging interests” when they represent a client charged with a crime based on evidence developed by Chicago police officers.
Aldermen “owe 100 percent of their allegiance to the city and its taxpayers,” according to the board’s opinion.
At Brookins’ request, the board reconsidered its opinion in October 2019, but declined to reverse it. At the time, Brookins said he would sue the city to overturn it — but never did.
The Ethics Board began investigating Brookins after WTTW News reported on Nov. 9 that he had agreed to represent Moreno, who was the 1st Ward alderman from 2010-19.
Moreno lost his seat in February 2019 to Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st Ward) and was charged in May 2019 with four felony counts of insurance fraud in an amount between $10,000 and $100,000, and obstruction of justice for destroying evidence. Moreno also faces charges of felony disorderly conduct and an offense related to motor vehicles.
Cook County prosecutors allege Moreno falsely claimed both to Chicago police and his insurance agency State Farm that his 2016 Audi A6 had been stolen out of his garage sometime before Jan. 4, 2019. However, Moreno allegedly turned the vehicle and its keys over willingly only hours earlier to a woman he had previously dated.
Moreno pleaded not guilty, and could not be reached by WTTW News.
Even though Chicago taxpayers pay aldermen approximately $120,000 annually, they are allowed to work outside of City Hall — including as lawyers.
Brookins — who earns more than $100,000 annually from his law practice — told WTTW News on Nov. 6 that he is confident there is no legal basis for the board’s ban on aldermen working as criminal defense attorneys in cases where Chicago police officers investigated the alleged crime.
Despite the fact that the board’s order has been in place for more than a year, Brookins has continued to represent clients charged with a crime in Chicago.
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office urged a Cook County judge in January to disqualify Brookins from representing a man charged with a crime based on evidence gathered by the Chicago Police Department, citing the opinion by the Ethics Board.
However, Brookins submitted an opinion from attorney Mary Robinson, a partner at Robinson, Stewart, Montgomery & Doppke that argued the Ethics Board’s decision was “faulty” and that there was no conflict of interest.
Judge Joseph Claps sided with Brookins in August, noting that his client was aware of the issue and still wanted Brookins to represent him in his criminal case. Claps said he did not see a “potential conflict of interest.”
Now in his fifth term, Brookins was first elected to the City Council in 2003 and serves as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s hand-picked chairman of the City Council’s Transportation and Public Way Committee.