Political junkies, newshounds and civic watchdogs love marquee matchups like the high-stakes showdown between Chicago’s most powerful alderman, Ed Burke, and Chicago’s most powerful watchdog, the U.S. Attorney’s office, over dubious disability claims.
Burke’s City Council Finance Committee handles worker’s compensation claims, which gives him patronage power to hire favored attorneys to handle cases and political power to pay out more than $100 million a year in benefits.
The feds looked at the program six years ago, following allegations of politically motivated payouts to city workers for bogus disability claims, but no charges were filed. Now the U.S. attorney is taking a fresh look, and that’s good.
Ferguson’s mission is to investigate and expose municipal waste, fraud and corruption, and for six months he has been asking for disability documents from Burke’s committee.
Burke has refused on the grounds that Ferguson’s office doesn’t have jurisdiction over the legislative branch.
That claim is debatable, but Emanuel is adding insult to injury by implying he doesn’t need a report from Ferguson to tell him what’s wrong with the disability program because he’s taking his own steps to reduce the payouts.
Emanuel may be reluctant to mix it up with the powerful Burke, but he’s more than willing to dis and dismiss Ferguson on this and other important issues related the IG’s office. That’s curious and troubling because candidate Emanuel pledged to expand the size and the scope of the IG’s office to protect taxpayers from the scams, scandals and skulduggery that define the “Chicago Way.”
Emanuel not only hasn’t kept those promises, he has prolonged predecessor Richard M. Daley’s court fight with Ferguson over access to the details of a no-bid city contract with a former Daley appointee.
And Emanuel repeatedly challenged Ferguson’s role in monitoring the nascent Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which — despite some reluctant tweaks and lots of rhetoric about openness and access — still lacks enough oversight guarantees.
Emanuel looks, unfortunately, a lot like Daley in challenging the concept of a truly independent IG who is free to follow leads wherever they take him. The new mayor, like the old one, seems to view Ferguson as another subordinate who’s entitled only to what the boss is willing to provide.
And that, in the long run, may do more to undermine the push for a cleaner and more ethical City Hall than Burke’s control of the disability program.
So enjoy the matchup between Burke and the feds, political theater at its best, and let the chips fall where they may.
But don’t lose sight of the other bout that’s just as important to the future of the city: Emanuel vs. Ferguson. The BGA favors Ferguson when it comes to ensuring government independence, transparency, accountability and oversight. And we believe this is a fight that Emanuel can actually win by losing, on behalf of Chicago taxpayers.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 427-8330.