City Council inspector general accused of violating the law
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter March 11, 2014 1:06AM
Updated: April 12, 2014 6:22AM
The City Council’s handpicked inspector general came under fire Monday for allowing his chief of staff to take a leave of absence to work on a political campaign — a move aldermanic critics say is illegal because city ordinance prohibits his employees from “engaging in any political activity.”
Kelly Tarrant, chief of staff to Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, returned to work Dec. 16 after spending the prior 10 weeks working on the state House campaign of Eddie Winters.
At the time, Tarrant told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Dan Mihalopoulos that her temporary return to the political arena gave her “the opportunity to sharpen my knives, so to speak” for the investigative work ahead.
She argued that there was “no one better” to investigate corruption than “someone who has been in the arena … I’ve seen the right, I’ve seen the wrong. I’m able to identify pretty quickly what’s acceptable.”
Now, Khan’s City Council critics are questioning how the legislative inspector general could have granted the 10-week leave that Tarrant boasted about in a 4,000-word blog post that included a picture of her silver badge when the city’s ethics ordinance expressly forbids it.
“Even though she was on a leave of absence, she was still a city employee. She didn’t resign,” said Ald. Joe Moore (49th), the target of one of Khan’s investigations last year.
“Having your chief-of-staff move back and forth between investigating elected officials and campaigning for them creates the appearance of impropriety. They’re supposed to be impartial. They’re supposed to follow the facts wherever they lead. This calls into question the professionalism of the office which, from Day One, has been sorely lacking.”
Neither Khan nor Tarrant could be reached for comment.
Assistant Legislative Inspector General Kathy Posner maintained that Tarrant’s leave of absence did not violate the city’s ethics ordinance because she is a “straight hourly employee with no benefits, no sick days, no holidays, no nothing.” Khan’s staffers are not city employees, Posner said.
“We’re independent contractors. While we’re working for the city, we can’t do political work or go to political events, even if somebody buys us a ticket. But, when we aren’t working for the legislative inspector general, we can do anything we want to do,” said Posner, who has also worked in Chicago politics.
“That’s why you would take a leave — to show you had nothing to do with the office during that time. They’re totally separate. In fact, the word ‘leave’ may not be the right word for an independent contractor.”
Other sources noted that the city’s ethics ordinance defines independent contractors hired by Chicago aldermen as City Council employees and the same applies to the legislative inspector general.
Whether or not Khan violated the law, he made a huge mistake by allowing Tarrant to take a 10-week leave to work on a political campaign, said Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association (BGA).
“Whether you’re a full-time employee or a contract employee, it’s still ill-advised to do political work when you’re a government watchdog. When you scrutinize the behavior of public officials on behalf of taxpayers, it has to be done in an apolitical, non-partisan way,” Shaw said.
“When you take a leave to work on a political campaign and return to your watchdog role, it does raise questions. Whether this is legal or illegal, it raises an ethical issue. Faisal Khan would be well-advised to [force his staff to] choose between watchdog work and political work.”
In his December interview with Mihalopoulos, Khan, who moved here from New York City, argued that he needs the political experience that Tarrant and Posner gained on the campaign trail.
“I want this kind of staff, providing insider knowledge I don’t have … Aldermen are really complex characters,” he said then.
Asked then what would happen if Tarrant or Posner walked into an interview and knew the person to be questioned from a campaign, Khan said they would be pulled from the interview, but not necessarily the case.