On eve of Chicago election, a call to confront city’s legacy of corruption

A report on ‘Patronage, Cronyism and Criminality’ in Chicago is released in the waning days of the campaign. The next mayor, the authors say, has the power to end the city’s scourge.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted February 14, 2011 at 8:07 pm EST

Chicago – The next mayor of Chicago has the power to help end the city’s scourge of corruption, according to a new report by the University of Illinois at Chicago that outlines a plan to save taxpayers millions of dollars lost each year due to what it calls patronage, bribery, and theft at City Hall.

The report, titled “Patronage, Cronyism and Criminality in Chicago Government Agencies,” dissects the major scandals that took place under the incumbent mayor, Mayor Richard M. Daley, and lists 340 city officials convicted of corruption-related wrongdoing since 1970.

The scandals, which are grouped in the report according to city agency, include unethical business dealings involving Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

“The patterns of patronage, waste and corruption are so pervasive as to suggest that corruption exists in most city agencies. As long as Chicago is run by ‘machine politics,’ corruption will be a hallmark of city government,” states the report, which was officially released Monday.

Crooked business dealings at the state, county, and Chicago city level cost Illinois taxpayers an estimated $500 million a year, it says.

Report coauthor Dick Simpson, who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a former Chicago alderman, says that while Mayor Daley has never faced any federal indictments, he “has allowed corruption to go forth” under his 22-year watch by resisting any major reform measures that would have dissuaded city officials from using their positions fraudulently.

“He would argue he would like the city to be cleaner, but, in fact, he abetted or has not curtailed the corruption that does exist,” Mr. Simpson alleges.

The report was released a week before the Feb. 22 mayoral election in an attempt by its authors to make corruption a priority for the campaign’s two remaining televised debates, Monday and Thursday this week. They are also asking that all six candidates endorse its 15-point agenda they say will lead to significant reform.

So far only two candidates have publicly endorsed the report’s reform agenda: former Chicago Public Schools Board President Gery Chico and William “Dock” Walls.

Mr. Chico is trying to use the report as leverage against frontrunner Rahm Emanuel. Chico is critical of Mr. Emanuel’s past associations, including his tenure as a board member of federal mortgage firm Freddie Mac between 2000-01, just before the firm misstated its earnings by $5 billion.

In a statement released Monday, Chico spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said of Emanuel: “To think that someone who has consistently turned a blind eye to sketchy activity occurring all around him is suddenly going to turn over a new ethical leaf as mayor requires the willing suspension of disbelief.”

An Emanuel spokesperson referred a request for comment to the candidate’s website, which outlines his reform agenda. Among Emanuel’s proposed anticorruption measures are expanding the Chicago Inspector General’s oversight to agencies that have none of their own, such as the Chicago Park District, and outsourcing the city hiring process to a private company, which he says will ensure independence.

The Blagojevich case

Chico is also bashing Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, for not disclosing the details of the conversation he had with a top aide to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich the day before Mr. Blagojevich was arrested, Dec. 9, 2008.

Blagojevich was tried last summer on charges related to an alleged scheme to sell the US Senate seat vacated by President Obama, but a mistrial was declared on all but one count. His retrial is scheduled for April 20.

Last week, Blagojevich lawyers filed a motion asking US Judge James Zagel to order federal prosecutors to turn over records of a “mysteriously missing” taped phone conversation, saying it would help prove their client’s innocence. In a countermotion filed late Monday afternoon, prosecutors say no such recording exists.

Even though Chico is endorsing the findings in the corruption report, he is mentioned as playing a role in a procurement scandal during his time as the board president of Chicago Public Schools.

Lobbyist reports show a subcontractor paid Chico’s law firm $10,000 in 2004 to help persuade the city to renew the company’s certifications that it was woman-owned and minority-owned despite being primarily owned by white men. The company ended up reaping $9.5 million in city contracts between 2001-08. Federal prosecutors indicted the owner on fraud charges earlier this month.

Ms. Anderson told the Chicago Tribune in December that Chico was not involved in the company but was just hired to aid in the certification process.

Anticorruption measures

The corruption report lists 15 measures its authors say will help steer Chicago from the pay-to-play politics that have plagued city business for generations. These measures include:

  • Requiring public schools to modify their curriculum to teach business ethics and the cost of public corruption.
  • Creating financial incentives to encourage whistleblowers to provide information that leads to indictments of contractors involved in wrongdoing.
  • Eliminating the City Council Inspector General position in favor of the Chicago Inspector General, whose power should be expanded to investigate city council members and their staff in issues such as patronage hiring.
  • Prohibiting any City Hall employee from receiving gifts from lobbyists.
  • Allowing public campaign financing for all citywide campaigns to allow all qualified candidates equal access to the election process.
  • Creating a credit rating system that evaluates city contractors based on efficiency and their ability to deliver services ahead of schedule or under budget.

Simpson says he is hopeful the new mayor and city council will work the recommendations into the municipal code later this year.

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