Chicago Mayor Pushes For Ethics Reform After Longest-Serving Alderman's Indictment

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is continuing to try to reduce the city's government corruption, after Alderman Ed Burke was charged with bribery and racketeering.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot continued Wednesday to push for reducing the city’s government corruption, which was most recently on display with a federal indictment against one of the most powerful aldermen.

“As public servants, each and every one of us has a duty to operate within the highest of ethical standards as we represent the people of this City,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “This latest ethics reform package is designed to ensure that the City Council, just like every other function of our city government, operates under appropriate oversight, and that all decision-making is done with the highest level of transparency and in the best interest of taxpayers.”

Lightfoot proposed changes that include banning aldermen, which is what Chicago calls its City Council members, from outside employment that could pose a conflict of interest with city business.

According to the ethics package, Lightfoot also wants the city’s inspector general to be able to audit City Council committees and make aldermen subject to the same oversight that city employees get.

The proposal would increase the maximum fine for “low-level” violations to $1,000 from $500, and for “high-level” ethics violations to $5,000 from $2,000. The Chicago Board of Ethics recommended the latter violations come with a $20,000 fine.

Lastly, the package includes a proposal to expand the definition of lobbyists to include nonprofits that lobby the city. Those lobbyists would have to register and provide quarterly reports, though their registration fees would be waived.

“The Ethics Reforms amendment proposed today will increase transparency and oversight of all programs, committees, and members of the City Council in order to hold our elected officials to the same high standards we hold city employees,” Alderman Michele Smith, who chairs the city’s Ethics Committee, said in a statement.

The new ethics package comes after Lightfoot signed an executive order on her first day in office ending the unwritten tradition of “aldermanic privilege,” which gave City Council members veto power over zoning and permits in their own wards.

The use of aldermanic privilege came up recently when Alderman Ed Burke, the city’s longest-serving council member ever and arguably its most powerful, was accused of allegedly threatening to slow approval of remodeling plans for a Burger King in his ward unless his law firm was hired for tax work. He won reelection earlier this year.

Burke, 75, was charged May 30 with racketeering and bribery in a federal indictment accusing the alderman of the very things Lightfoot’s ethics proposals seek to stop. Burke allegedly used his position as a councilman and Finance Committee chairman to steer business to his private law firm, and used the city as a criminal “enterprise” ― violating a law the Chicago Sun-Times says was first created decades ago to combat mobsters and organized crime. The alderman pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.

The mayor confirmed to the Sun-Times that the ethics package is “designed to address the problem of Ed Burke trying to monetize his position as an alderman and as a chairman.”

Lightfoot called the indictment “alarming.” She has repeatedly demanded Burke resign from his position, and said she’s called for an investigation into whether any current city employees were complicit in the indictment’s allegations.

“Given the serious criminal liability he faces, Alderman Burke can no longer continue to do his job honorably or effectively,” the mayor said in a May 30 statement. “It is in the best interests of all that he step aside so that the residents of the 14th ward can be properly represented.”

Lightfoot’s ethics package is part of her promise to bring sweeping change to City Hall in her first 100 days in office. A former prosecutor and head of a police oversight board, the mayor won all 50 wards in an April runoff election.