Chicago Board of Ethics Cracks Down on Use of City Property in Campaign Ads

(WTTW News)(WTTW News)

The Chicago Board of Ethics determined Friday there is probable cause to believe that a candidate running in the Feb. 28 election violated the city’s Governmental Ethics Ordinance by using city property in their campaign advertisements.

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The candidate, who was not named, will have a chance to challenge the board’s determination in March. If they are found to have violated the law, they could face fines of up to $20,000 per violation. The board acted after it gave the candidate 10 days to respond to the complaint filed against them, but apparently found their argument unconvincing.

In addition, the board also voted to give eight other candidates for city offices 10 days to refute allegations that they also violated the city’s ethics law by using city property in their campaign ads. None of those candidates were named in keeping with the board’s rules.

The nine enforcement actions – an unprecedented number for the board to take at a single meeting – were approved at a special meeting of the Chicago Board of Ethics approximately two weeks after Chair William Conlon sent a warning to all candidates: Do not use images of uniformed Chicago police officers, firefighters or city personnel in campaign advertisements.

The admonishment sent Jan. 30 was prompted by a spate of campaign ads showing uniformed Chicago police officers and several complaints, officials said.

“The board reminds all candidates and their political committees that their use of photographs or video of CPD or other city personnel in uniform could not only subject those personnel to investigation and/or discipline by their own departments, but also subject the candidates to formal proceedings and possible public findings that they violated the city’s Governmental Ethics Ordinance, and fines up to $20,000,” according to the letter.

Chicago Police Department policy prohibits officers from engaging in political activity while “wearing a uniform or any part thereof which would identify the individuals as Chicago Police officer, or use property of the Chicago Police Department.”

U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García edited his first television advertisement in the race for Chicago mayor on Jan. 25 to remove images of the candidate talking to two uniformed officers while promising to get tough on crime.

Representatives of the Chicago Police Department confirmed to WTTW News that the two officers featured in García’s ad are under investigation.

The People’s Fabric, an anonymously run blog that focuses on Far Northwest Side politics, reported that a complaint was filed with the ethics board against Ald. Samantha Nugent (39th Ward) the same day the board issued the warning. Nugent is running against Denali Dasgupta, a data researcher who has the endorsement of the progressive organization United Working Families.

A mailer sent out by Nugent, who represents Sauganash, Forest Glen and Mayfair as well as parts of North Park, shows her alongside a man dressed in the Chicago Police Department’s distinctive light blue button-down shirt with a Chicago Police Department patch visible on his shoulder, navy tie and navy pants.

Nugent, who has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, declined to answer questions about the warning by the Ethics Board in response to a request from WTTW News.

The People’s Fabric also obtained an advertisement sent out by Anthony “Tony” Ciaravino, a Chicago Police officer running to represent the 11th Ward against Ald. Nicole Lee, Ambria Taylor, Elvira "Vida" Jimenez, Froy Jimenez, Donald Don and Steve Demitro.

The bulk of the advertisement features a picture of Ciaravino, in uniform, policing what appears to be a large protest in downtown Chicago.

A spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department told WTTW News the department had launched an internal investigation into Ciaravino based on his ad.

Ciaravino did not respond to an email message from WTTW News sent to his campaign.

It is unclear whether the Ethics Board acted on complaints involving García, Nugent or Ciaravino on Friday.

Had Mayor Lori Lightfoot not demanded changes to the way the Chicago Board of Ethics operated, the identities of the candidates under investigation for violating the city’s Ethics Ordinance could have been made public before Election Day.

The ethics board is now required to notify the elected official in writing at least 10 days before the Board of Ethics could find probable cause that they violated the law, giving them a chance to refute the allegation before the board acts.

Originally, the board could determine there was probable cause the law had been violated before asking the candidate or official to respond to the allegation. No enforcement action could have been taken until after the candidate or official had a chance to make their case, under the rules that governed the Ethics Board from 1987 to July 2022.

Lightfoot said that change was necessary to “make sure that the board is viewed with legitimacy, not as judge, jury and executioner before they even get the other facts from the person who's the target of the complaint.”

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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