The Chicago Board of Ethics fined Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th Ward) $20,000 on Monday for retaliating against a frequent critic and political foe by directing a city employee to issue “unfounded citations” that could have forced the Jefferson Park man to pay more than $600 in fines.
In keeping with the rules governing the inspector general and Chicago Board of Ethics, Gardiner was not named in the report. However, sources confirmed to WTTW News that Gardiner was the subject of the board’s action.
Gardiner did not immediately respond to a text message from WTTW News seeking comment about the board’s action.
The board found Gardiner committed 10 total violations of Chicago’s Governmental Ethics Ordinance, five violations of his fiduciary duty to the city and five violations for unauthorized use of city property.
The board levied the maximum fine of $2,000 for each individual violation of the ordinance, in accordance with the terms of the Governmental Ethics Ordinance that was in effect in September 2019, when the violations.
Inspector General Deborah Witzburg’s determination that Gardiner violated the city’s Governmental Ethics Ordinance is the “first-ever finding of probable cause in an inspector general ethics investigation of a sitting member of City Council,” officials said.
Witzburg told WTTW News the Board of Ethics’ action on Monday was a “landmark” because it levied the maximum fine for multiple violations against a sitting alderperson.
“The arc of corruption in Chicago is long,” Witzburg said. “We are bending it back.”
Witzburg said she was heartened by the fact that it is evidence that her efforts to ramp up enforcement of the city’s ethics rules had started to show results address what she calls the city’s “deficit of legitimacy.”
“It should and does send a message that bad actors will be held accountable,” Witzburg said. “Those who abuse positions of public trust will be punished for doing so.”
Gardiner is accused of targeting Jefferson Park resident Pete Czosnyka, who has frequently criticized the alderman and his ally Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward) both on social media and by filing complaints with the inspector general and the Board of Ethics.
Czosnyka, who was also not named in the inspector general’s report, said he was satisfied by the fine levied by the board, which ends a four-year odyssey.
“Knowing that Gardiner was found guilty provides a satisfaction that his aberrant behaviors have been formally recognized, gives me hope that IG Witzberg addressing the ‘deficit of legitimacy’ will make a difference going forward and that it will make other (alderpeople) think twice,” Czosnyka said via email. “The $(20,000 fine) will make it harder for (Gardiner) to explain his bad behavior to his political contributors.”
Czosnyka transformed the front yard of his Jefferson Park home with insect- and environmentally-friendly native plants he purchased in 2011 from the city, including black-eyed Susans, hollyhocks, lemon balm and goldenrod.
In September 2019, the city slapped Czosnyka with fines totaling more than $600, alleging he had failed to maintain the parkway, causing rodent problems, and had weeds taller than 10 inches. Czosnyka challenged the tickets, and they were tossed out by a judge.
The inspector general’s probe found that Gardiner “conceived the idea to issue citations” with two employees of the Department of Streets and Sanitation “at the alderman’s ward office and proceeded with the plan even after being informed that plants at the critic’s property were legal.”
Gardiner was reelected in April, despite facing a number of investigations and lawsuits.
A federal judge ruled Sept. 25 that Gardiner violated the First Amendment by blocking six critics from his official Facebook page in 2021, including Czosnyka. Gardiner now faces a trial to determine whether he should pay those critics’ damages.
In addition, Chicago taxpayers paid $100,000 to resolve a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed he was wrongfully arrested at Gardiner’s request after finding a cell phone that belonged to a close associate of the alderperson, records show. That associate is now facing charges he tried to sell an illegal machine gun while working for the city.
Gardiner has been accused of leaking improperly obtained court records that showed James Suh, a frequent critic who ran against him, had been charged with unlawful use of a weapon in 2008. Suh helped organize a protest of Gardiner for blocking the approval of a proposed development near Six Corners in Portage Park.
The Cook County Circuit Court Clerk requested that the office’s watchdog probe how Gardiner got those records.
WTTW News reported in September 2021 that federal agents are probing whether Gardiner took bribes and demanded payments before taking official actions. He has not been charged.
In January, the Board of Ethics asked the inspector general to probe allegations Gardiner harassed a group of people collecting petition signatures for one of his opponents in November.
Gardiner apologized in September 2021 for sending profane and misogynistic texts to a former aide about former Ald. Tom Tunney (44th Ward) and two women who work at City Hall.