Mayor Rahm Emanuel tends to parcel out more pithy put-downs than lofty literary lines in jousts with the media, but he deigned to parry with both verbal weapons at the same time recently when he repurposed one of Shakespeare’s most famous titles — “Much Ado About Nothing” — to describe a revelation that his press office has been surreptitiously, and perhaps illegally, taping phone conversations with reporters.
The mayor doth protest too much, methinks.
Instead of dismissively hiding behind the Bard of Avon, Emanuel should be serving the public by making sure his administration comes clean.
But all we have so far is his legal staff’s unsubstantiated claim that these recordings were limited to a handful of Tribune reporters, and that it won’t happen again.
Emanuel is saying, in effect: “Trust me. And move on.”
Sorry, Mr. Mayor. that’s not how it works. Many groups, including the Better Government Association, believe Illinois’ anti-eavesdropping law may have been violated, and that’s a serious matter.
So serious, in fact, that the city’s administrative inspector general, Joe Ferguson, who’s empowered to ensure that city officials follow the law and to assist in the prosecution of violators, reportedly has begun an investigation.
That’s good, and it will be even better if City Hall cooperates with Ferguson, which hasn’t always been the case in the past.
Emanuel, like his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, claims the IG’s jurisdiction stops at the mayor’s door on certain matters, and that assertion prompted a Ferguson lawsuit that’s now in front of the Illinois Supreme Court.
Ferguson’s office won’t discuss any of this with us, citing disclosure prohibitions in the city’s IG statute.
But the BGA, in an open letter to Emanuel, supports an IG investigation, calls for the mayor’s cooperation, and explains that — as a good government watchdog organization that scrutinizes the conduct and policies of public officials — we’re afraid City Hall’s press team has been secretly recording conversations between our investigators and administration officials. If so, the letter says, please give us “the dates the recordings took place and the identity of the person or persons making the recordings.”
The letter reminds the administration that Illinois’ Eavesdropping law “flatly prohibits such conduct under circumstances where a party to the conversation has not consented to the recording.”
Let’s be clear: BGA investigators have no problem with interview subjects recording the conversations as long as they ask first.
And the BGA doesn’t record interviews without getting prior approval.
That’s called fair play.
What’s unfair is the mayor’s characterization of this as small potatoes unworthy of further scrutiny. That attitude is also at odds with Emanuel’s pledge to run an administration committed to transparency and accountability.
Yes, Mr. Mayor, we get that you’re confronted every day with the life-and-death challenges of running a big city beset with myriad problems.
But here’s another fact of life: The law is the law, someone in your office messed up, and you have an obligation to get all the facts and make sure it won’t happen again.
Or as Shakespeare might advise: “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”
Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.