Chicago Ethics Board wants fines and suspensions for lobbyists who give money to mayoral candidates

The proposal would give enforcement teeth to a 2011 executive order that bars improper contributions.

Brandon Johnson
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson responds to a question in his City Hall office during an interview Monday, May 6, 2024, in Chicago. The Chicago Board of Ethics wants the ability to fine and even temporarily suspend lobbyists if they contribute to a mayor’s campaign in violation of a decade-old ethics rule. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
Brandon Johnson
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson responds to a question in his City Hall office during an interview Monday, May 6, 2024, in Chicago. The Chicago Board of Ethics wants the ability to fine and even temporarily suspend lobbyists if they contribute to a mayor’s campaign in violation of a decade-old ethics rule. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Chicago Ethics Board wants fines and suspensions for lobbyists who give money to mayoral candidates

The proposal would give enforcement teeth to a 2011 executive order that bars improper contributions.

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The Chicago Board of Ethics wants a law on the books that allows it to fine and even temporarily suspend lobbyists if they contribute to a mayor’s campaign in violation of a decade-old ethics rule.

The board unanimously recommended Monday that the City Council update the ethics ordinance to give enforcement teeth to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 executive order that bars lobbyists from donating to a mayor’s political committees.

The proposed changes would allow the board to issue a fine three times the amount of a lobbyist’s improper contribution — regardless of whether it was returned — on the first violation. That could escalate to a 90-day suspension of a lobbyist’s registration for any additional violations. The enhanced penalties would extend to entities that a lobbyist has more than 1% ownership in, such as an LLC, and apply to donations made to mayoral candidates — not just the mayor.

The recommendations come after the board ruled it can’t actually enforce the 2011 executive order that it’s been tasked with administering after an outside law firm determined the board’s enforcement authority isn’t codified in statute. Last month, the board dismissed four cases against lobbyists who improperly donated to Mayor Brandon Johnson’s political campaign. It similarly closed a fifth case Monday for lack of jurisdiction. In that case — which had been referred to the city’s watchdog, the Office of Inspector General — the lobbyist argued the donation to Johnson’s campaign had been made by an entity connected to the lobbyist, rather than from the lobbyist personally.

Ald. Matt Martin, 47th Ward, chair of the City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight, said he is reviewing the board’s proposed amendments and plans to introduce a substantially similar version at next week’s City Council meeting with the hopes of passing an ordinance by June. But it remains to be seen if the proposal will earn Johnson’s support, who hasn’t pushed for ethics and transparency reforms as speedily as his predecessors.

“(Residents) want us to take ethics, transparency and oversight as seriously as possible. They see headlines for the last several decades, in fact, of people who have been sent to jail for violating ethics regulations and pay to play laws,” Martin said. “I stand ready to work with my colleagues and the mayor’s office on meeting those expectations.”

The proposed changes “will remove the ambiguity (surrounding) this topic for years now and make it crystal clear to all involved,” said Bryan Zarou, director of policy for The Better Government Association, a nonprofit that advocates for open government. “It raises the level of responsibility that comes with lobbying, if you make a mistake, you pay a fine — if you do it a second time, it means you have no regard for the law.”

Even a lobbyist whose case the board dismissed last month, former longtime 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore, said overall he doesn’t have an issue with the proposed fines and suspensions. Moore cautioned the City Council “to take a look at the unintended consequences” of the 1% ownership threshold, which he said “seems an awfully small amount and could end up with a lot of gotcha moments.”

And he suggested one addition.

“There should be some penalty for the mayor for either expressly or implicitly accepting contributions from lobbyists,” said Moore, who noted a donation page on Johnson’s campaign website is silent on the executive order’s prohibitions. “I think there needs to be someone in the mayor’s office who needs to brush up on the executive orders and the ethics requirements.”

Steve Berlin, the ethics board’s executive director, noted political committees already face penalties if contributions aren’t returned in a timely fashion.

A spokesman for Johnson did not address the board’s proposal. Asked last month whether he supports codifying the board’s enforcement authority, Johnson said it’s not something he’s “spent a lot of time thinking about” and that he would “take another look at it.”

Since Johnson took office, five lobbyist donations have been returned or paid back, according to state campaign finance records. Earlier this year, 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.

A separate package of ethics proposals sponsored by Martin that would impose tighter ethics and campaign finance laws sit in limbo. Martin said the mayor’s office no longer supports the ordinance.

“I’ve asked what, if anything, would need to change in order to get that support back and haven’t yet received a response to that,” Martin said.

Johnson has recently faced growing calls to fill vacancies on the ethics board that have stymied the board from meeting. At least four members are needed for the board to meet and take any legally binding action, and its March meeting was canceled due to a lack of members. The board has two vacancies currently, and two more board members’ terms are set to expire at the end of July.

“It is our hope that the two vacancies are filled and that the two members with expiring terms are reappointed — as quickly as possible,” Berlin said.

A spokesman for Johnson said three candidates will be submitted for appointment this month, with approval anticipated at June’s City Council meeting.

Zarou said it’s extremely “troubling that (Johnson) has dropped the ball and is waiting to the last minute.” The Better Government Association has reached out to the mayor’s office several times and has been told nominations will be made at the next council meeting.

“We were told this in April as well, so it’s just wishful thinking,” Zarou said. “If we do not have any nominees in place by the end July, the board will not be able to fulfill any of its obligations — we urge the Mayor to make this a priority.”

Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th Ward, who has proposed legislation to bar alderpersons from having outside employment, said he supports the proposals from the board, which has done “really a yeoman’s job of trying to make sure that city government is accountable.”

“It is necessary for those kinds of measures to be taken so that people have more confidence in the government they pay for,” Vasquez said.

Tessa Weinberg covers city government and politics for WBEZ.