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Cook County ethics board approves reforms as member resigns in protest of President Toni Preckwinkle’s move to replace chair

Friday, January 24, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Lolly Bowean

Cook County ethics board approves reforms as member resigns in protest of President Toni Preckwinkle’s move to replace chair

By LOLLY BOWEAN

 

JAN 24, 2020 |6:00 AM

Margaret Daley, chairwoman of the Cook County Board of Ethics, makes a statement about her dismissal by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, during an ethics board meeting at the Cook County Administration Building on Jan. 23, 2020, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

In an attempt to strengthen the county’s ethics law, the Cook County Board of Ethics is recommending banning county commissioners from taking certain outside jobs, outlawing nepotism in county hiring decisions and requiring registered lobbyists to disclose if they have relatives working for the county.

The ethics code proposal came Thursday as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle replaced current board chair Margaret “Peggy” Daley on the board, a move that prompted fellow board member David Grossman to resign in protest.

The five-member board unanimously approved the proposed changes to the county ethics code on Thursday that would, among other things, remove the state’s attorney’s power to settle ethics lawsuits without ethics board approval and add sexual harassment as a possible ethics code violation. The proposed changes also would increase the possible fines for certain ethics violations.

The proposed changes would help weed out corruption and wrongdoing, board members said. Still, they would have to be reviewed by the public at hearings and eventually approved by the full county board to become law.

“This board agreed, based on its experience, that (there were) perceived shortcomings in the existing ethics ordinance and a concerted effort was needed to research, to review, to identify best practices in local government jurisdictions and codes of ethics across the country,” said Juliet Sorensen, who led the process of rewriting the ethics code. “The goal ultimately is to bring the ethics ordinance up to what our research shows is the best possible standard for codes of ethics for local governments across the country.”

In its reform efforts, the board tweaked some of the ethics rules, like more specifically defining what nepotism is and carefully outlining who is considered a lobbyist. It also presented new rules to address sexual harassment and protect employees from inappropriate advances.

Keith Chambers, director of the Cook County Board of Ethics, listens to board members address the dismissal of board chairwoman Margaret “Peggy” Daley, not pictured, during an ethics board meeting at the Cook County Administration Building on Jan. 23, 2020, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

The action on the ethics code came as Daley, whose term had expired over the summer, presided over her last meeting. Preckwinkle informed her on Tuesday she was being replaced.

Daley’s four-year term officially ended in July, but she has continued to serve and said she thought she was going to be renewed for a new term. Instead, her seat will be filled by Susan Gaffney, an associate professor at Governors State University.

At the meeting, Daley told the board that she was surprised that her term was not renewed, but pushed the remaining members to continue refining the ethics code.

Daley also said that in recent years the ethics board has not been auditing campaign finance disclosures and, in what she said was her final action, she urged the board to resume conducting such audits, which at one point identified possible violations by former county Assessor Joseph Berrios.

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“I believe that these audits are a critical function of the department of ethics and the failure to conduct them may result in backsliding and compliance failures at best and the tolerance of corruption at worst,” Daley read from a prepared statement. “I urge this board to confirm that these audits do indeed begin again as promised. And I urge President Preckwinkle to make this a priority.”

Commissioners Grossman, Sorensen and Thomas Szromba all have terms that expire in the next six weeks. Daley said she thought they should all be allowed to continue serving on the board.

“It would be counterproductive to replace these board members at this crucial juncture,” she said.

In response to Daley’s termination, Grossman resigned from the board Thursday, he said.

Grossman said although his term expires in March, he’s leaving in February because he doesn’t like how Daley was terminated.

 

“In light of your action, it is clear that you do not welcome a Board of Ethics that is serious about its duties," Grossman wrote in his resignation letter to Preckwinkle. "It would simply be a waste of my time to continue in my role with the board. … You are free to fill my vacancy with someone more likely to do your bidding.”

Read the full resignation letter sent to Preckwinkle here »

On Wednesday, it had not been determined if Preckwinkle would replace the other board members whose terms expire soon.

On Thursday, her spokesman Nick Shields said Preckwinkle thanks Daley and Grossman for their contributions and wants to give others an opportunity to serve.

Shields previously said that for months Preckwinkle’s office has been systematically reviewing all county boards and commissions, and considering how to fill vacancies and determine new appointments and reappointments. Ethics board members are hand-selected by Preckwinkle based on recommendations. Her selections have to be approved by the full county board of commissioners.

The board positions are unpaid, and they are tasked with enforcing the county’s ethics regulations and creating rules that govern more than 20,000 county employees and officials.

 

On Thursday, the board elected Sorensen to become its chair.

Preckwinkle’s office, through a letter, asked the board to delay voting on the ethics reforms, but it moved forward anyway.

 

But afterward, Shields said Preckwinkle has expanded the number of county employees required to receive ethics training, and has introduced and passed her own reforms to the county’s ethics ordinance.

“The irony today is that some ethics board members have opted to grandstand and insert politics rather than focus on good government work and ethics reforms,” Shields said in a written statement. “Case in point: we were provided roughly three weeks to respond to the recommended changes. Additional time was requested by the president’s office to simply review and collaborate with the ethics board on the recommended changes. That very reasonable request was curiously denied.”

He said Preckwinkle’s office simply wanted more time to review the proposed changes.

“The president’s office has simply not had sufficient time to adequately review the technical issues with a legal lens that would amount to considerable change to existing policy,” he said in his statement. “This was not a collaborative process but rather an unfortunate public political stunt."

 

 

 

Daley’s termination came just as the proposed ethics changes were in the final stages.

But Daley also happens to be one of three ethics board members who donated to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign when she was competing with Preckwinkle for the city’s top seat.

Daley, Sorensen and Grossman donated a combined $8,500 to Lightfoot’s campaign, election records showed. At the time, both Daley and Sorensen said they were personal friends of Lightfoot and their financial support was not a subtle criticism of Preckwinkle.

 

Besides donating to Lightfoot, Daley was also a vocal critic of Berrios, who is a longtime Preckwinkle ally.

lbowean@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @lollybowean



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