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The [Wednesday] Papers

"A federal grand jury has demanded that a City Council committee led by a powerful alderman turn over records related to a program that last year alone paid out $115 million to disabled city workers, according to documents obtained by the Tribune," the paper reports.


"Prosecutors sent subpoenas to the Finance Committee long led by Ald. Edward Burke, 14th. The Aug. 3 request asks for access to a host of records related to the 'duty disability' program.

"The subpoenas were issued about one week after city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor, announced that Burke's committee had rebuffed his attempts to obtain many of the same records."

Burke has, however, decided to hand over the documents he won't give to Ferguson to the inspector general for the city council, Faisal Khan.

"But Khan runs a fledgling one-man office that has funding of $260,000 this year, compared with Ferguson, who has an authorized staff of 67 and a budget of $5.8 million," the Tribune notes. "The powers of Khan's office also are more limited."


"Aldermen created Khan's office in 2010 as they sought to fend off a move by then-Mayor Richard Daley to give Ferguson the power to investigate the City Council. Several aldermen said then that the city inspector general, appointed by the mayor, could not be truly independent.

"Critics contend that Khan's office is a sham because he must clear considerable hurdles before he can open an official investigation. Among them is approval from the city Board of Ethics, which has not issued a finding of aldermanic wrongdoing in more than 24 years.

"Khan does not have his own investigators, instead relying on those who work for the Board of Ethics."


Read those last two paragraphs again. I'll wait.


The executive director of the city's ethics board is Steven Berlin. He's been there in one capacity or another since 1993. Good job!


In a statement to the mayor's ethics task force, Berlin said this:

There are 4 important elements (or pillars in the edifice) of any effective governmental ethics program. I stress that an effective government ethics program, and the very idea of implementing effective government ethics reform in the first place-are about and should focus on so much more than having an "up-to-date" code of conduct. The elements are, in order of importance:

(1) providing prompt, professional and confidential advice and guidance; (2) providing ethics education; (3) regulating and maintaining public disclosures (transparency); and (4) investigating and enforcing ethics and campaign financing violations.

And, I emphasize, that last element is far from the most important. Yet in Chicago, and some other jurisdictions, it has interestingly become the bellwether for how the media, and, supposedly, the public, view the effectiveness of an ethics program.

Investigating and enforcing ethics and campaign finance violations is far from the most important element of the board's work? That says it all, doesn't it? Much more important to, say, provide an ethics education to those who either aren't going to stray in the first place or are going to stray anyway. Here's your ethics education: Don't lie or cheat. Don't use public office for personal gain. Do the right thing. Done.

We have learned that ethics programs cannot be measured by the number of investigations conducted by ethics commissions, inspectors general or the number of governmental personnel indicted and convicted by federal prosecutors.

Maybe in Mayberry, but this is Chicago. Unfortunately, that remains the most important metric.

Governmental ethics programs are not about putting people in jail. They are about training and encouraging government personnel to recognize and deal responsibly and professionally with conflicts of interests that inevitably arise in a complex institution like a municipal corporation with tens of thousands of employees and officials performing hundreds of tasks. The Board of Ethics, the Legislative Inspector General, and indeed, the (Executive) Inspector General are not criminal prosecutors. When, in the course of our work, we come to a reasonable belief that criminal activity has occurred, we are required to suspend our work and refer the matter to state or federal prosecutors. In fact, this has occurred on numerous occasions since I have been in the office.

Name them.

I am proud to say that, in the 2 most critical pillars - advice and guidance, and education - the City of Chicago excels.

If your advice, guidance and education excel so much, why do so many city employees still get busted? After all, isn't that the first metric to use when assessing how well you are educating and advising?

Our advisory function is so important that, without it, experts recognize, no ethics program can hope to succeed. In fact, I am often asked, waggishly, "how do you keep the City of Chicago ethical?" My answer, developed after about 15 years on the job: as long as people continue to contact our office and seek advice about the responsible, "ethical" thing to do, we will tell them and keep them "ethical."

And by that measure, you are winning, because there is no more "ethical" city in the country than Chicago.

The Board is the only agency in City government (aside from the Police Department, of course) with the authority to investigate all 53 elected officials and all employees from both branches of government.

And yet, investigations are "far from the most important" function of the board. Neat how that worked out.

[O]ur annual mandatory training program has seen resounding success. The City has achieved 100% compliance every year since mandatory annual ethics training began.

This is typical bureaucrat thinking. Maybe the process of delivering annual ethics training is a success, but is the result? Resoundingly, no.

[Enforcement and Investigations], unfortunately, receives the most press, because it is inevitably tied to scandal, and some have been conditioned to believe that Chicago is inherently scandalous.

We've been brainwashed.

It is a constant cause of antagonism between the Board of Ethics and the media, as the Board does not and by law cannot participate in "gotcha" stories.

We need to stop "getting" them!

[T]his area is not where the Board and City's ethics program make their mark. As commentator and author Rob Wechsler puts it: "enforcement is not an ethics program's principal goal; prevention is."

And how is that working out for you? And isn't enforcement the best prevention?

[O]ur value to City government is primarily in preventing misconduct and conflicts of interests, not punishing it.

Maybe in fantasyland, but in Chicago the array of investigators already out there need all the help they can get; and besides the U.S. Attorney's Office, there's virtually no one. The Cook County State's Attorney's Office takes a pass, as does the state attorney general. As the bros say, go big or go home.

We would hope that an employee or official who settles a matter, perhaps with a fine or other sanction, would be seen as someone who learns from his mistakes, rather than as just another corrupt Chicago pol who then becomes the focus of ridicule and cynicism in the media.

Right. From now on we'll frame these stories as "learning experiences."


Here are the board members.


The board calls on the media to stop calling it a "do-nothing" agency.


Look, if your most important mission is training and advising, shouldn't you just work in the city's HR department? Let's abolish the ethics board, send a few of your staffers to HR, and give the city's inspector general everything he needs to get the job done.


And if you want to be taken seriously, you can't pull crap like this.


Step back, ethics board. If everyone thinks you're a joke, maybe you should reflect upon the fact that everybody might be right and your view from the inside might be incredibly insular.

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The Beachwood Tip Line: Educating and advising.


Posted on August 15, 2012

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