Emanuel defends vetting of indicted ex-comptroller | WBEZ
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Emanuel defends vetting of indicted ex-comptroller

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday said the city’s now-indicted former comptroller violated the public trust by failing to disclose he was the target of a federal corruption investigation.

But Emanuel maintains he knew nothing about the probe of 38-year-old Amer Ahmad until news of his indictment broke late last week, despite previous news reports connecting Ahmad to his alleged co-conspirators.

“You have an obligation, when something like that happens, to - when you start to get questions - to inform the people you work with who have entrusted you with the public trust,” Emanuel said of Ahmad at an unrelated press conference Tuesday. “And that is where he violated the trust.”

Ahmad has pleaded not guilty to money laundering and bribery charges, stemming from his time as Deputy Treasurer for the State of Ohio.

He’s charged with steering lucrative state contracts to a former high school classmate who went on to work as a securities broker. In exchange, federal prosecutors say the broker, Douglas E. Hampton, funneled more than $500,000 to Ahmad through his alleged co-conspirators and through phony loans to a landscaping company Ahmad partially controlled, the indictment alleges.

The indictment, handed down by a federal grand jury in Ohio late Thursday, does not accuse Ahmad of breaking the law while working at City Hall.

In his first comments since the indictment last week, Emanuel defended his administration’s process for vetting Ahmad before he was tapped in 2011 to be one of the mayor’s top financial advisors. Two lawyers hired to screen candidates did a “comprehensive review” of Ahmad and got the “thumbs up” from his former bosses, Emanuel said.

But Ahmad’s indictment is embarrassing for an administration that prides itself on controlling its message. It also puts pressure on Emanuel’s administration to explain how thoroughly Ahmad was vetted in the first place.

This week, Emanuel’s administration released an April 2011 letter from Vincent Connelly, a former federal prosecutor who vetted potential hires during Emanuel’s transition into office. The letter shows the incoming administration questioned Ahmad about Ohio state contracts awarded to Boston-based State Street Bank under Ahmad’s watch.

Ohio newspaper reports in 2010 had raised questions about Ahmad’s connections to Noure Alo, a co-defendant who has pleaded not guilty in the case. Alo had been a business partner of Ahmad’s and was reportedly hired as a lobbyist by the bank in hopes of scoring Ohio state business.

Despite the news stories, the lawyers vetting Ahmad gave him the okay.

“Based on Mr. Ahmad’s representation to us and our own analysis of the matter, it appears that Mr. Ahmad acted appropriately,” reads the Apr. 1, 2011 letter. “We find no reason that he should not be considered for the position.”

On Tuesday, Emanuel added there was no way he could have known about the federal investigation in Ohio.

“It’s not like the Justice Department gives you a heads up,” Emanuel said.

A “preliminary review” over the weekend found that none of the defendants or companies mentioned in the indictment are doing business with the city, Emanuel said. But he’s also asking for a further probe of city finances under Ahmad’s watch “to make sure that, in fact, never should the taxpayers of the City of Chicago be violated as the people in Ohio when Amer worked there.”

That forensic audit will be overseen by Emanuel’s top lawyer, Steve Patton, and Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, who has previously had frosty relations with the mayor’s administration.

The investigation will be conducted by two lawyers with the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath: Gordon B. Nash, Jr., a former Chicago federal prosecutor, and Daniel J. Collins, a former U.S. Attorney who was the lead prosecutor in the case of the Mumbai terror attack.

“They will be asked to examine all areas of responsibility under the purview of the Comptroller to ensure the public trust was not violated,” mayoral spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton wrote in an email. “They will provide regular updates to both the Inspector General and Corporation Counsel throughout the course of their review, which we expect will take several months to complete given the diligent approach that will be undertaken.”

Alex Keefe covers politics at WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ahmad's indictment came down on Friday, Aug. 16. In fact, it was handed down on Thursday, Aug. 15.

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