by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producer
CHICAGO (CBS) — Feeling federal investigators breathing down their necks, Chicago aldermen on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to sweeping changes to the city’s lobbying rules, in the wake of a growing federal corruption probe.
“We are surrounded by impropriety; at the state level, at the county level, and in this body. The feds are all around us. We need to send the message that this BS is over with,” said Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who co-sponsored a measure to prohibit paid lobbying by elected officials in Chicago.
The City Council Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight approved an ordinance that would prohibit all city elected officials and employees from being paid by a private client to lobby any government body in Illinois. Likewise, it would prevent any other elected officials in Illinois from being paid to lobby the city for a private client.
Chicago Ethics Board executive director Steve Berlin explained that the lobbying ban would not prevent any elected official from lobbying on behalf of their constituents, or from performing their official government duties.
Lawyers seeking city action on zoning matters would be exempt from the ban.
The measure is a response to a sweeping federal government investigation of ComEd and parent company Exelon and their lobbying practices. The lobbying ban also was prompted by federal charges filed against state Rep. Luis Arroyo, who is accused of bribing a state senator in exchange for the senator’s support of sweepstakes-related legislation that would benefit one of Arroyo’s lobbying clients.
Arroyo, a state lawmaker since 2006 before resigning last month in the wake of the federal charges, also has been registered with the city as a lobbyist since 2017.
O’Shea called the lobbying ban “commonsense legislation” to prevent what he said is a far too common problem of elected officials profiting from interests that conflict with their government duties.
“How many times do we have to wake up and read the newspaper and see something else?” he said. “We need to send the message to the people that we represent in our communities that the buck stops here, and the bullshit’s gonna stop.”
However, some aldermen raised concerns that the ban would hurt some professional lobbyists who also serve as elected officials in small towns out of a sense of civic duty.
“When we say all elected officials, I think we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater on this one,” Ald. David Moore (17th) said. “We have to make sure that this is written well, that it does not affect those good elected officials who are doing good work in the city, state, and county.”
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said he was “torn” on the lobbying ban, fearing unexpected cosequences from aldermen approving such a restrictive ban as a kneejerk reaction to negative publicity created by a sweeping federal corruption probe.
“We do a lot of things because it’s popular. It seems like, quite frankly, that the media runs us. We do whatever’s popular in the media, and we just do it expediently, and sometimes without thinking about the consequences,” he said.
However, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) pointed out that virtually every regulation the city has ever put into place has had an adverse impact on people who weren’t regulated before. She said the ban is necessary to avoid conflicts of interest for city officials, even if it might hurt some lobbyists.
“It isn’t because it’s fashionable, it isn’t because it’s popular, it’s because it’s needed,” she said.
Ryan Tolley, policy director Change Illinois, a nonprofit nonpartisan group that advocates for government reform, applauded aldermen for moving forward with the lobbying ban.
“It is past time we send a strong message to those who would abuse their public office that these abuses will not be tolerated,” he said.
With 30 aldermen signed on as co-sponsors, the ordinance is all but assured of being approved by the full City Council at its next meeting on Dec. 18.