As of October 1, I have taken a leave of absence from a city of Chicago agency that I hold very dear to my heart: the Office of the Legislative Inspector General (OLIG). The reason for my leave is nothing short of dynamic: I am helping a 19 year police officer who sits on the counter terrorism task force win the Democratic nomination for Illinois State Representative of the 10th District. His opponent in March’s primary is none-other than an indicted State Representative with an upcoming federal trial. So, in essence, I left my Assistant Legislative Inspector office job to “take it to the streets”.
I have been in politics for over 20 years. What does that mean? I have managed, fundraised, advised, and done public relations for individuals seeking to serve the public in an official elected capacity. To that end, I have managed or been a part of campaigns in places such as Stone Park, the City of Chicago, and races all over this great state. My clients/candidates have been very diverse - Serbian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, African-American and Jewish, just to name a few – both genders included.
Being a part of these campaigns, there was one focus and theme I never forgot or allowed my candidates to forget - rules and ethics. Over my 20 year career, I developed a deep understanding of Illinois campaign finance laws. I took this seriously; these rules represented the trust that is given to elected officials by the public, and I never wanted my clients to forget that – without integrity and ethics, a candidate could never gain my trust, or more importantly, that of the public. It was all the more evident of how serious this was because being an insider I saw many a candidate and campaigns skirt these laws, with some dealing with severe consequences, while some getting completely away with it. Even through my diligence, there is always a chance that one will skirt this ethic issue. Last year one client allegedly accepted a bribe unbeknownst to his very hard working and dedicated staff including myself. Fast forward to today, I am helping run the campaign against this individual.
In 2012, I had my first experience working at the municipal level: I had the honor of working for an aldermanic official in a fundraising capacity. Despite many colleagues issuing words of caution and questioning me about the decision to wade into city matters, I moved forward anyway, having no idea what I was about to encounter.
In the city of Chicago, being a city council alderman is almost akin to being a movie star. Perhaps not Tom Cruise level, but certainly enough status to turn a head or two. I think it’s only second to being an athlete. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of elected officials throughout this nation are given a great deal of respect and attention. Aldermen here though almost have rock star status. Well, at least in my house - when I was little and growing up in Hegewisch. My friends and I considered our Alderman Vrdolyak like a Mayor. On occasion we would see him driving – he would roll down his window and wave. Boy, would we be thrilled! He was our leader and gate-keeper. That’s just how we felt.
So the first time I walked into city council to watch my new aldermanic client at a council meeting was simply a surreal experience. Now, so you know, I have been in the Springfield capital. I had traveled the entirety of this great state with candidates all shaking hands, kissing babies and talking politics. But nothing, I mean nothing, compared to walking into and being in city council chambers. Memories again flooded my mind: I remembered as a kid watching my favorite Alderman screaming, hooting and hollering either at or with his twenty eight other colleagues during the famous “council wars”. We took this very seriously! My Dad even would wear his cap with “29” inscribed on it proudly while we watched Joel Daly’s Eyewitness News in the evening. This may sound really strange to some, but only an old school Chicagoan would even understand what a baseball cap with “29” on it means – Just to prove the point, I was offered $1000 for it when people found out that my Dad still has the cap. And as a true Chicagoan, the thought of selling that cap didn’t even cross my mind.
Now, back to my aldermanic client and the fundraising job I discovered a huge problem, which turned into a real dilemma really quickly – What I found was that raising money was easy – too easy. As much money as I was taking in, I found myself turning a significant amount of it away! Why you ask? Because no one was following the rules – money (cash) was everywhere, trying to be given at improper venues, and to say the quantity was within guidelines would be like saying you can just eat one French fry – just not going to happen. I realized that council politics is the Wild West. Everything goes, and I mean everything! Some of the things I saw and heard made me really for the first time reconsider what I had chosen to do in my career. Nevertheless, determined to fix the wrong, I quickly became a guard dog of my Alderman’s campaign committee. I set new rules: I never let him meet with anyone alone. I took notes at every meeting. I was gratified that he too held a high ethical standard, but together it seemed we were against the world. As I searched for guidance in any law I could find, I found a tiny pink pamphlet called the City of Chicago Campaign Finance Guide. It’s no more than 10 pages. There were two rules to it that really applied to us: do not accept cash over $250 and do not accept over $1500 from anyone doing business in the city during a cycle.
But right off the bat I had questions: What about sets of circumstances such as Developer A wants to meet with an Alderman and in the course of that meeting wants to donate to the next event? What if a zoning issue is coming up for vote in the next council meeting and that same business owner donates to the committee using an on-line donation the night before the meeting? What do you do? I can tell you I always erred on the side of caution and refused those donations. But who was I to do this? Just one person with one Alderman. What about the rest of them?
After some time of dealing these various issues, I was speaking to a friend of mine on the phone and my frustration was boiling. I had just got off the phone with one of the donors that I refused to take money from. So instead he offered me his beach house in California. “Absolutely not”, I said. My friend could not believe all that I was going through in just the six months of being in city politics. I said to her “Where is that Guy?” She asked me who I was talking about. I said “Where is that Khan guy I read about? I know he is out there. Where is he? I need him!” My friend, a blogger, a Chicago veteran, and an icon in her own right, wrote a blog in search of this guy. (Writer’s note: not only did the blogger find him, but became his biggest fan!)
Fast forward one year later – I was still working in politics, but I got to go to a luncheon where the guest speaker was the City of Chicago Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan. Who and what is this guy you ask? Read HERE. To say the presentation was interesting and refreshing would be an understatement. I think I had not heard a more candid person speak about the state of affairs in Chicago in a long time.
After his speech, I met Faisal and gave him my card. I told him that if he ever had an opening in his office, I would love to help him. While I came from the political world, I knew I could bring some valuable insight about the goings on in this political area, and I genuinely wanted to see him succeed.
A few months later, I happily accepted a position as Assistant Legislative Inspector General in January 2013. Working with Faisal on a day to day basis, I was offered his Chief-of-Staff position. Even though we were an office of three (!), we were doing things that sorely needed to be done.
When I took the job as ALIG, I had no idea what Faisal had been doing up to that point. He had had the job for 14 months, all by himself, and while he had put out a prior semiannual report, there were enough questions by the media regarding the validity and viability of his office.
Some background I learned about Faisal when I took the gig. (Again, author’s note: I consider Faisal a very good friend of mine, but I provide this information from a factual standpoint, and not a personal one). He is a former prosecutor in New York City as well as an Inspector General there. When he applied for the position, Faisal’s application was reviewed by a Blue Ribbon panel in 2011. All six members of this panel recommended him: retired judges, former top level police officers, academic persons, and members of the clergy. Out of approximately 140 candidates, he came in number one. From there he was hired as the first Legislative Inspector General for Chicago’s City Council. He literally knew no one in Chicago, and legitimately only had one friend in this entire city! One! And that one was certainly not an alderman. More facts: Faisal took the job originally not knowing the salary. He felt it was important and prestigious enough to be the first LIG of Chicago, and figured that things like salary would work themselves out.
Here’s where things got interesting: Faisal was asked to start a brand new city department in the third biggest metropolis in the country. And not just any department: an agency designed to oversee the city’s biggest political entity! Through more controversy and conversation was this department created – even on the day of appointment, Faisal witnessed a fiery discussion about it on the council floor. Recall that originally Mayor Daley wanted the city council to go under the oversight of the City Inspector General. The Council, however, disagreed. They did not want to be under the City IG, who reports to the Mayor, because they feared specific targeting by the IG at the Mayor's instruction.
So with the creation of a separate Legislative IG came the creation of a brand new ordinance. Chapter 2-55 of the Municipal Code was created. We’ll come back to this later. Back to Faisal: When he got called for his second interview, he got a call from the Council to come in. He was told he was meeting with Aldermen Burke and Mell. Not knowing who these guys were from any other Joe in this fine city, Faisal called his one friend and told him that city council wanted him to meet some aldermen named Burke and Mell. This was the conversation as relayed to me:
Faisal: “Hey, who’s Burke and Mell?”
Friend: “I don’t know, probably the two most powerful aldermen in Chicago!
Faisal: "Huh...(pause)…better go shave.”
Once he got the job, Faisal learned the entire budget of his office, including his salary was $60,000.00. This was justified to him because of the lack of complaints the previous year against city council (even there was nowhere for people to go to complain) numbered in the low single digits.
It ended up getting tougher from there – despite public encouragement from both the community and members of city council, Faisal was neither given an office, staff or even basic supplies. He asked and was given space at the Chicago board of Ethics office on Sedgwick Ave. He took a corner office, and brought his own computer to use – supplies were at the Board of Ethics’ kindness, but it’s fair to say that resources were marginal.
Despite this, Faisal moved forward. He immediately borrowed money from other departments to set up a complaint line (he only had one line so it was a do-it-all line) and waited about two months for a computer. His first order of business was the OLIG Rules and Regulations: completed in just four weeks. Starting at the end of November 2011, Faisal had the office sort of up and running by January 2012.
Now, I could write another ten pages about Chapter 2-55 of the MCC. To say that it is a joke of a law would be an insult to jokes. From a body that has seen so many of its members go to jail, and who publically rally and cry for real oversight, they sure have a funny way of going about it. Just compare the two IG chapters of the law – you will see who has real interest in oversight and who does not. This council watered down the LIG’s law so much, it is well known they have “rigged” the system perfectly. No anonymous complaints, no proactivity, and the need to seek authorization to continue an investigation and notify the subject(!) are just a few of the disgraceful parts of this law. Just this past year, when the ethics ordinance was to be strengthened based on the recommendations of the Commission appointed by the Mayor to make real ethical changes to this city, this council ran so far from this opportunity, it was quoted in one of the papers that the mayoral staff said these aldermen were hiding under their desks. What more needs to be said?
Again, back to Faisal – his first year was met with much turmoil. Those 3-4 expected complaints over twelve months escalated quickly to 30 within the first few months. With no staff and no budget beyond his own part-time salary of $60,000 (without benefits), the challenge remained tremendous. If he wasn’t borrowing supplies from the Board of Ethics, he was paying for them out of pocket. He paid for his own parking each day. He paid for supplies (the Board thankfully reimbursed him later out of their own budget), but by mid-March he ran out of money. So, he made calls. Sent emails. And letters. Despite being out of money, he never stopped working. Ever. He requested to be a full-time salaried person but was denied. He didn’t ask for this for job security or from a benefit standpoint. He rightly believed that asking for money from the people he directly oversees, and who know by law that he may be investigating them, was a huge conflict. In fact, Faisal felt any control over his budget by city council directly brought into question and possibly circumvented the work he was doing.
His request both for full time status and for staff was denied for budget reasons. He was told there was not enough money for the rest of 2012, and who knew what would happen in 2013. Certainly these statements called into question the commitment of the city to the OLIG.
To keep going, Faisal made a request of $200K to put in at least allow him to partially bill for rest of year. It was approved and put in until July 2012. Here’s how Faisal ran his office despite his budget issues and lack of staff – he never refused a complaint or case. Some of the work required him to start working with State prosecutors and Feds immediately. He did so. He developed contacts, created a case tracking system, and just kept plugging away.
When it came time in October 2012 to discuss the 2013 budget, Faisal again repeated his request for full time status – in writing, at a task force, and in person. After asking for real staff and real resources, and asking for a budget equivalent to his workload, he got a fraction of what he asked for and needed: a $354K budget approved for 2013. To create greater flexibility, Faisal volunteered to cap his billables and salary to be equal to the City IG. He took the rest and spread it out as far as he could – I got a job!
Let me put the $354,000 price tag to run the Office of the Legislative Inspector General in persepctive. The city of Chicago (source: budget book 2013):
• allocates more money to WEED WACKING on the south side of Chicago
• the budget is less than the cost of a few park benches in the city
• The new budget analysis office, another creation of city council, already has a higher budget (500K) than the OLIG, and they haven’t even started.
When I came on board at the OLIG, I was stunned at the amount of work that was being done and needed to be done. I was also simply amazed how Faisal was able to hold down this “fort of one”. Slowly but surely, I integrated myself into the work. We hired another, then another, then another colleague. We were contractual employees with no benefits. We remained housed within three small rooms at the Board of Ethics. This was no problem; we all held the same determination and passion for doing what was right as our IG did. We reviewed and investigated 50+ complaints in the 9 months that I was at the OLIG. When we issued our semi-annual report this past August we were hit hard with a combination of love and criticism. Actually mostly criticism. It was surreal to see the amount of criticism we were taking for the work that by all parties accounts, needed to be done.
As I continued at the OLIG, I started paying a little more attention to our counterpart in the city – Joe Ferguson and his office. What became immediately evident was the difference in treatment and resources provided to these two sister agencies. Faisal had next to nothing, as I documented above, but the City IG world was a little different. There is the obvious of a $7 million budget, staff around 70 or so, and a police squad of a few officers. Then there is the less obvious: parking for 47 staffers at the city’s dime, and an entire floor of a city building with a great deal of access to other resources.
But what bothers me more is the hypocrisy of city council – while they actively call for Faisal’s head because he has the audacity to do what he was asked and tasked with, as well as voice their opinion for the shutdown of his office so the City IG can take over, (despite the fact that they refused that idea in the first place unanimously) they repeatedly fawn over the City IG. Calls for independence i.e. being free from the Mayor, a higher budget and greater resources, and political freedom to do what he needs for the office that does not oversee the council, would not be so ridiculously galling if there was some part of consistency on the part of this body. But not surprising is the evidence of nary a peep from these elected officials to provide the same type of support and resources to the office that DOES oversee them and their conduct.
One of Faisal’s confidential requests was made public by a few aldermen - a request to all 50 aldermen for a number of time-sheets. The response publically to this by most aldermen was appalling – many questioned the validity of his actions, while others refused to comply, while two were most clear – one alderman was quoted in the Sun Times as saying Faisal should just collect a paycheck and stay out of the way, while another said, “Ain’t nobody gonna just tell me what to do.” Remember, these people created Faisal’s office. The hypocrisy in that fact that an Alderman would refuse to cooperate with their IG while calling for independence and support for the other IG is amazing. Caucuses within this council showed their true colors by demanding that the OLIG be shut down. Progressive, indeed.
During my tenure there, we begged, borrowed and stole (not literally) everything we needed to do our jobs. Some city agencies were great – we took old computers, printers, supplies, and anything else we could get our hands on and willing to donate to keep us going. Faisal brought in personal laptops for all of us at one point so we could get work done. Despite all the negativity and lack of support by the city council, we kept going. The job was more important.
A couple of other random observations:
I had complex cases that in most instances ended up referred out to either the US Attorney or the State’s Attorney. Many times we met them on a weekly basis. In one instance I needed to have the city seal on a document for a very important case. My colleague phoned the City IG and asked if we could use their city seal to stamp the subpoena. A day later they called us back and refused to let us borrow it. We had to ask the Board of Ethics to purchase one for us. I had to wait for it in the mail. The subpoena sat for days while I waited pilgrim-style for the mail to arrive with my seal. It was truly a moment to consider that the City IG refused to allow us to use a stamp.
There were several times when we thought we should seek legal counsel for ourselves or our case related work. Aldermen were blatantly ignoring our rules and laws and signed and sworn complaints continued to pour in. We had no money to hire a law firm. Meanwhile our biggest relief came from the alliances we made with other outside agencies. The State’s Attorney’s office was a great resource for us. The US Attorney was equally supportive in as much as they were able considering their own sequester circumstance.
So what was the point of me writing all of this? This Wednesday, the 2014 City of Chicago budget will be unveiled. I wonder what I will see when it comes to the OLIG? Will the OLIG line item be dissipated? Will the funds remain the same, rendering the same daily struggles for the OLIG? Or could there be a possible bizarre chance that the very entity that the OLIG is investigating would rally for its watchdog to have a real budget, like the City IG it has so fondly cuddled up to? Might we all share one ordinance? Can the two IG offices share resources in an effort to reduce costs for the city? After all, there would be no need for a Legislative IG if there were no legislators. And there would be no legislators if there were no voters putting them into office. The real buck stops with the citizens of this city. That is who OLIG always held as the true heroes in all of this. The people who, despite the weak ordinance laden with obstacles, find their way into the OLIG office and sign and swear to a complaint. Anonymous tips be damned, the cases are still flowing in to the OLIG. And as long as Faisal is there, no case will be refused, matters will be investigated, and justice, despite all of the manmade obstacles, will hopefully be done.
On a personal note: Faisal may not be from here (a New Yorker!), but there are few people I have met who truly embody the spirit of Chicago and where it should be. He is one of those people, an asset to this city, and I hope he sticks around for a long time helping and serving all of us.