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New Cook County ethics rules due for September resurrection as appointed board nears 6-month hiatus

Monday, August 10, 2020
The Daily Line
by Alex Nitkin

Cook County leaders are vowing to press forward with a series of revisions to beef up the county’s ethics ordinance in the wake of a controversial shake-up in the appointed board that crafted the changes.

The five-member Cook County Board of Ethics voted in January to recommend the revisions, which would tighten the language of ethics provisions that prevent conflicts of interest and nepotism among county employees, among other tweaks. But that was before Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle booted board chair Peggy Daley, an architect of the proposal, from the volunteer body by declining to appoint her to a new term.

Related: Conflict-of-interest rules would apply to Cook County board, commission appointees under proposed ethics rules

Another board member, David Grossman, resigned in protest of Daley’s dismissal, telling Preckwinkle in an open letter that she was “free to fill my vacancy with someone more likely to do your bidding.” And a third member, Northwestern University law professor Juliet Sorensen, also left the board in June after Preckwinkle opted not to renew her term.

Speaking during a virtual town hall event hosted by former Cook County Clerk David Orr on Tuesday, Daley and Sorensen both said they were in the dark as to whether the new rules are still being considered. They also expressed alarm over the fact that the Board of Ethics has not met since February, even as other county bodies have held virtual meetings amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

  1. Keith Chambers, the executive director of the Board of Ethics, told The Daily Line in an email Friday that “efforts were underway” before March to fill vacancies on the board, which “would have given the Board the quorum needed to conduct meetings,” but the pandemic “temporarily delayed” the process.

Following the appointment of Governors State University professor Susan Gaffney and retired Judge Marcus Salone to replace Daley and Grossman, the board “now has the necessary quorum and technical assistance to resume meetings targeted for September,” Chambers wrote.

He added that the 53-page list of recommended revisions, which remains posted on the Board of Ethics’ website, are “absolutely” still being considered.

Sorensen, Daley and other members of the ethics board drafted the changes and voted to recommend them, but only the elected Board of Commissioners is empowered to enshrine them into the county code.

Cook County Comm. Larry Suffredin (D-13) told The Daily Line on Saturday that he plans in September to introduce his own “version” of the proposed changes to the ethics ordinance so that “some time in October we can probably have a hearing on them.”

Suffredin declined to go into detail about how his changes would differ from those recommended by the Board of Ethics in January, but he said he would consult with the board on his draft.

“Whatever I put in [the ordinance] will be to strengthen the ordinance, and not to weaken it,” Suffredin said. “I will listen to any ideas and make sure we adopt the strongest possible standard for people to follow in their conduct.”

Proposed ethics rule changes in limbo

Sorensen said during Tuesday’s town hall event that she and other board members were motivated to strengthen the county’s ethics rules after a similar push by the Chicago City Council, which unanimously voted in July 2019 to adopt revisions championed by new Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Related: City Council votes 50-0 to give Lightfoot big wins on ethics, worker protections

The board researched state and city rules, as well as “best practices in local government ethics codes across the country,” to create “seamless web that we seek to knit together into an ethics ordinance that provides the most transparent, accountable government for the citizens,” Sorensen said.

The proposal would expand conflict-of-interest rules to members of more than 60 county boards of commissions, empower the Board of Ethics to approve certain legal settlements, codify a county-wide ban on sexual harassment and expand nepotism rules to include more “modern” definitions of family members, Sorensen said.

They would also preclude county officials from taking any outside job that “risks creating an appearance of impropriety,” potentially impacting the multiple elected commissioners who earn income outside their public roles.

“Our county should not only be clean — it should look clean,” Sorensen said Tuesday.

The board’s proposal and Daley’s departure from the board in January culminated in a flare-up with Preckwinkle, who said through a spokesperson that board members had “opted to grandstand and insert politics” by releasing their changes before Preckwinkle’s office had a chance to review them. She said at the time that the development of the new rules was “not a collaborative process but rather an unfortunate public political stunt."

Sorensen and Daley countered on Tuesday that although they did not engage directly with Preckwinkle’s office when crafting the changes, they spent months developing their draft through multiple public meetings. They also said they had originally hoped to unveil their proposal in December, but Chambers and Preckwinkle had asked them to delay.

Sorensen said Preckwinkle’s comment accusing board members of a “political stunt” was “categorically incorrect.”

“This board of ethics was a group of independent, reform-minded, deeply experienced professionals,” Sorensen said. “And I can tell you that not once did politics enter our minds.”

‘You can’t blame this all on the virus’

A cascade of negative headlines has only raised the stakes for strengthening ethics rules since the last time the Cook County Board of Ethics held a meeting on Feb. 26.

A federal judge ruled that Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough violated the terms of the so-called “Shakman decree” and must overhaul hiring practices under the eye of an independent monitor. Inspector General Patrick Blanchard published a report blasting the Cook County Board of Review for considering personal connections in hiring. And a bombshell indictment of utility Commonwealth Edison furnished evidence of a web of corruption reaching to the most powerful decision-makers in the state.

Related: Judge orders oversight of county clerk’s office as Shakman urges Yarbrough to ‘get on board’ with reform

Orr, who has been inviting public officials to participate in town hall events through his Good Government Illinois group, told The Daily Line on Friday that the timing of Preckwinkle’s decision to drop Sorensen and Daley from the board — right after they unveiled their proposed changes — “unfortunately stinks.”

He noted that the board was also waging legal battle with former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, a longtime political ally of Preckwinkle, when she made the decision. Berrios sued the county to reverse the board’s finding that he had accepted more than $100,000 in improper campaign contributions, but a judge ruled in February ruled against him.

“I was very concerned as I found out more about this board of ethics that had a great reputation, and then two top people basically get canned, and a third person quits,” Orr said. “It’s just very disappointing. Delay after delay [in the ethics code revisions], and now it’s August. You can’t blame this all on the virus.”

Nick Shields, a spokesperson for Preckwinkle, did not directly respond on Friday to Orr’s comments or say whether the president would support the proposed changes to the ethics ordinance. But Shields wrote in a statement that said Preckwinkle “has been a true champion of ethics reform in Cook County” during her decade as president, noting the she has expanded ethics training and overseen “comprehensive reforms to the county’s ethics ordinance.”

“The President has always championed transparency, accountability and ethics reforms, has welcomed the recommendations from the Ethics Board and appreciates the efforts the Ethics board has undertaken,” Shields wrote.


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