Ethics board says aldermen who violate code of conduct should face harsher punishments as Gardiner retaliation claims investigated
Ald. James M. Gardiner (45) reacts at a City Council meeting where alderpeople voted on the 2022 budget, on Oct. 27, 2021. [Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago]
The city’s ethics board is calling for harsher punishments for alderpeople who violate the council’s code of conduct after Ald. Jim Gardiner (45) allegedly retaliated against constituents who criticized him.
According to Board of Ethics findings released Tuesday, the group wants City Council members to create an ordinance that would make the body’s code of conduct enforceable by law — not just “aspirational” as it is currently. This means officials caught flouting campaign finance rules or abusing their power in another way would be subject to sanctions such as fines, suspension and termination.
The board’s September finding of probable cause found Gardiner violated the “aspirational” code of conduct.
“Lots of these standards should not just be aspirational but should be substantive, actionable and enforceable,” said Ethics Board Executive Director Steve Berlin.
During the board’s closed-door Monday meeting, they voted to defer a case regarding an unnamed city official suspected of “withholding city services” to a political opponent and leaking a constituent’s criminal records in acts of revenge — both things Gardiner has been accused of in recent months, though he was not named in the report. These claims are currently under investigation by the city’s Inspector General.
Berlin said he could “neither confirm nor deny” that Gardiner was the subject of the ethics board’s violation findings, but the alderman faces these specific allegations that Block Club has covered at length.
“Many of these aspirational goals reflect conduct that the public is absolutely entitled to expect from city officials,” said Ethics Board Chair William Conlon at Monday’s meeting. “Failure to meet these standards should be made actionable under the ethics ordinance.”
Other behaviors outlined in the code indicate that officials should “put forth honest effort in the performance of their duties; treat members of the public with respect and be responsive and forthcoming in meeting their requests for information; and, act impartially in the performance of their duties, so that no private organization or individual is given preferential treatment.”
The board plans to meet with Ald. Michele Smith (43), the chair of the City Council’s Ethics and Government Oversight Committee, to discuss how to change city rules to make the code of conduct more enforceable.
“As always, I welcome any opportunity to work with Steve Berlin, Bill Conlon, and the entire Board of Ethics to continue perfecting Chicago’s ethics rules and regulations,” Smith said in a statement to Block Club.
The City Council has updated the city’s ethics ordinance nearly a dozen times in the past decade — most recently in 2019, when Mayor Lori Lightfoot pushed through a ban on so-called “cross-lobbying” between elected officials of different governments. Ald. Jason Ervin (29th) pushed to roll back that prohibition last year, but other alderpeople resisted.
The Ethics Board can issue a “final determination” of Gardiner’s violation and fine him after the Inspector General’s probe is complete. Penalties could be up to $5,000 per violation — or up to $2,000 if they happened before September 2019, when the City Council voted to hike the fine.
Separately on Monday, the ethics board rejected a plea from Jay Doherty, the indicted former president of the City Club of Chicago, to reconsider a $75,000 fine the board leveled against him last month.
Doherty was found by the board to have been “lobbying on behalf of entities for which the individual had not duly registered as a lobbyist” in 2015 and 2019, according to the ethics board. City rules allow the ethics board to fine Doherty $1,000 for each day he allegedly engaged in unregistered lobbying with each client. By that standard, the board could have issued a fine of more than $2 million, officials said.
Doherty petitioned the board last month to reconsider its decision, but the body voted unanimously on Monday to deny the petition, “as no newly discovered facts were presented to warrant such a reconsideration,” according to ethics board records.
The board also referred to the Inspector General a complaint that an appointed city official “failed to disclose a financial interest pending before the City.” And it voted to ratify a legal opinion outlining guardrails that alderpeople must follow if they want to sell personal property in their own wards without tripping city ethics rules.
These probes began in September after leaked text messages between Gardiner and a former aide were made public. Messages showed Gardiner calling female City Hall staffers and constituents “b-tches” and “c–ts” and included a text saying “This b-tch on Kildare will pay,” referring to a resident who had been critical of him.
Gardiner is also facing a series of allegations that include booting constituents from a virtual public meeting and digging up police reports on a business owner who disagreed with his development decisions.
The FBI, the Board of Ethics, the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office and the Office of the Inspector General are investigating Gardiner’s conduct in office.
Last month, the embattled alderman was stripped of his role in all Cook County Democratic Party committees and formally reprimanded by the party based on his “obscene” language seen in the text messages.
In addition to the board’s findings, Gardiner is also facing three separate lawsuits. Most recently, the constituent whose old criminal history was leaked — one of the findings the ethics board found to be a potential violation of city code — sued Gardiner for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights and for attempted retaliation.
In June, six residents sued Gardiner for allegedly blocking them or deleting critical comments on his Facebook page. Gardiner, who hired a private attorney to represent him on the matter, has sought to dismiss the lawsuit, which is now in the hands of a judge, attorney Mark Weinberg said.
Last year, a former Northwest Side resident filed a federal lawsuit against Gardiner and his ward superintendent, alleging the two men inaccurately accused the man of a crime, harassed him and had him arrested over a lost cellphone.
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