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Chicago Ald. Matt Martin speaks at a podium

Ald. Matt Martin, who chairs the city council’s ethics committee, successfully advanced an ordinance that would allow fines and temporary suspensions for lobbyists who improperly donate to a mayor’s campaign

Ashlee Rezin

Chicago alderpeople advance ethics measure that penalizes lobbyists who contribute to mayor campaigns

Since taking office, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s campaign has returned lobbyist contributions despite a ban on those donations.

Despite claims that the mayor opposes it, a Chicago City Council committee advanced an ordinance Thursday that would allow fines and temporary suspensions for lobbyists who improperly donate to a mayor’s campaign, bringing the Board of Ethics one step closer to being able to enforce a decade-old ethics rule.

The city council’s ethics committee passed the ordinance Thursday even though some of them alleged Mayor Brandon Johnson does not support the proposal. Since taking office, Johnson’s campaign accepted — and then later returned — contributions from lobbyists in violation of a 2011 executive order barring the donations.

A Johnson spokesman did not immediately comment on its passage.

Ald. Matt Martin, 47th Ward and chair of the ethics committee, said the ordinance’s passage will ensure the city doesn’t take a step backwards on ethics reform.

“When it comes to ethics and campaign reform, we don’t want to go back to where things were pre-2011,” Martin said. The mayor’s office, “made clear that there were not any changes that they could suggest that would get them on board in order to support and so I asked: ‘What about this point? What about this point? What about that point?”

Martin said the mayor’s administration did not provide clarity on their opposition to the ordinance.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro, 29th Ward, was the lone vote in opposition.

The ordinance, which had the support of good government advocates like the Better Government Association, would allow the Board of Ethics to impose a fine three times the amount of the improper contribution if it is not refunded or returned within 10 days of discovering the violation. Lobbyists who subsequently violate the ethics rule could then face 90-day suspensions. The penalties would apply to donations a lobbyist made personally and donations from an entity they have 7.5% ownership in and have lobbied for in the past year. The limits would also extend to donations made to mayoral candidates’ political committees, not just the incumbent mayor.

Board of Ethics Executive Director Steve Berlin urged alderpersons to pass the enhanced penalties, which were needed after the board recently discovered it could not enforce a 2011 executive order that barred lobbyist contributions to the mayor.

An outside law firm determined the board lacked enforcement authority because it wasn’t codified in statute. In recent months, the board dismissed five cases against lobbyists who improperly donated to Johnson’s campaign as a result.

“If this amendment is not enacted, it would roll back this part of the city’s ethics laws to the way they were up until May 11, 2011 and thus erase 13 years of reform,” Berlin said. “But more importantly, it would annul the spirit of one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s key ethics reforms: which was to eliminate lobbyists’ political contributions to mayors.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd Ward, alleged members of Johnson’s leadership team were lobbying alderpersons not to support the ordinance ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

“The mayor got caught violating an executive order. He benefits from the relationships he has with these folks, these lobbyists and these corporate entities, and they didn’t want to see that changed,” Reilly said. “But if it was good enough for Mayor Emanuel, good enough for Mayor Lightfoot, it should be good enough for Mayor Johnson.”

“We’re not supposed to be a cheerleading squad, we’re supposed to be a check and balance to the executive branch,” Reilly said.

The executive order was signed on Emanuel’s first day in office in an effort to break from pay-to-play politics.

Johnson previously said codifying enforcement of the executive order is not something he’s “spent a lot of time thinking about” and that he would “take another look at it.”

In addition to the returned lobbyist contributions, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Johnson’s campaign also returned dozens of contributions totaling more than $50,000 after accepting donations from city contractors — which another Emanuel executive order bars.

“I think when you’re a mayor, sometimes things that are good government things or improvements on government might feel like critiques or attacks,” Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, said. “I don’t believe that was the case here.”

Some alderpersons expressed a desire Thursday for the City Council to also turn an eye toward imposing greater campaign finance restrictions on alderpersons.

“Some of our colleagues are wholly-owned subsidiaries of an organization that has literally bankrolled their entire campaign,” Reilly said. “And if it is really about getting money and the influence of it out of politics, it seems like we’re nibbling around the edges here.”

The committee also approved two appointments to the Board of Ethics — which good government advocates had clamored for after the board had been unable to meet previously due to a lack of quorum and with two additional members’ terms set to expire next month.

The ordinance and appointments now head to the full City Council for approval. It remains to be seen if the lobbyist penalties will be approved by the full City Council, which has become increasingly emboldened as it sheds its “rubber stamp” designation of largely going along with the mayor.

“With all government and legislation, it’s all work in progress,” Vasquez said. “The fact that it made it out of committee is a good sign. If I were another alder, you probably don’t want to be viewed as an impediment to good government and ethics. But that’s up to other folks to decide.”

Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ.

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