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Joe Ferguson reappointed inspector general — question is for how long

Inspector General Joe Fergus |  Sun-Times file photo

Inspector General Joe Ferguson | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: October 4, 2013 6:19AM

Chicago’s corruption-fighting Inspector General Joe Ferguson will be reappointed for another four-year term — with the unwritten understanding that he’s likely to step down after next summer — in spite of his contentious relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The surprise decision was made Friday during a City Hall meeting between Emanuel and Ferguson that was the first between the two adversaries in the nearly 28 months since the mayor took office.

Sources said they talked about “bad moments in the past” and ways to avoid similar tension. Ferguson asked to stay on through next summer to help get the city out from under the Shakman decree and the costly constraints of a federal hiring monitor.

Emanuel accepted Ferguson’s offer and plans to ask the City Council to give the $161,856-a-year inspector general, whose term expires in November, another four-year term.

But, in a prepared statement, Emanuel made it clear he expects the relationship to terminate sooner.

“I am pleased to accept the Inspector General’s offer to stay on through next summer and complete the important work currently under way,” the mayor was quoted as saying.

“ I look forward to working with Joe to see the city to full Shakman compliance and end four decades of federal hiring oversight. The Inspector General and I share the same underlying goal: protecting the taxpayers.”

In his own statement, Ferguson thanked the mayor for “agreeing to allow me to continue to work on wrapping up some unfinished projects, most notably achieving Shakman compliance and fully implementing the administration’s ethics reform bill.”

He added, “I expect we can do that up by the end of [next] summer and then I plan to move on to other things.”

Chicago taxpayers have spent nearly $8 million on federal hiring monitor Noelle Brennan and her consultants since Brennan was appointed by a federal judge in 2005. The city spent an additional $12 million to compensate victims of the city’s rigged hiring system.

The decision to extend the fiercely independent Ferguson’s tenure even for a day marks an abrupt about-face for Emanuel, who inherited Ferguson from former Mayor Richard M. Daley and has been at odds with the former federal prosecutor ever since.

The tension stems from Emanuel’s efforts to block Ferguson’s pursuit of unbridled subpoena power — all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court — and Ferguson’s attempts to audit city programs to verify the mayor’s bold savings claims and hold Emanuel to honor campaign promises to expand the inspector general’s investigative powers to the City Council, the Public Building Commission and the Chicago Park District.

Ferguson and Brennan have also hounded the mayor to punish high-ranking city employees who testified under grants of immunity at federal trials that culminated in the conviction of Daley’s former patronage chief, Streets and Sanitation commissioner and two others on charges of rigging city hiring and promotions to benefit the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization (HDO) and other pro-Daley armies of political workers.

Until Friday’s private meeting, Emanuel appeared to be laying the groundwork for Ferguson’s exit. He told Ferguson he must re-apply for the job he has held since 2009 and justified it by arguing that the formal selection process was mandated by his Ethics Reform Task Force.

Two members of the Ethics Reform Task Force and Ferguson’s predecessor David Hoffman disagreed. They said the ordinance clearly empowers Emanuel to re-appoint Ferguson.

Still, Emanuel showed no signs of bending until last month’s stunning indictment of former City Comptroller Amer Ahmad in an alleged $500,000 kickback and money laundering scheme in Ohio. It forced the mayor to use the inspector general he despised as political cover.

The mayor flatly denied that he should have known about Ahmad’s alleged wrongdoing as deputy treasurer of Ohio and promised an exhaustive investigation — with Ferguson and Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton overseeing the work of two outside attorneys — to make certain Chicago taxpayers and pension funds were not similarly victimized.

Patton and Ferguson were adversaries in the marathon court battle that tied Ferguson’s hands and insulated Emanuel and his top aides from investigation.

Now, it appears the Ahmad investigation — and Emanuel’s desire to end Shakman and avoid the political backlash that would come from dumping Ferguson — have combined to buy the inspector general another year.

A top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous, denied that the Ahmad investigation was the trigger.

Instead, the source said the two men have been attempting to work more closely together since early July, when Ferguson accused the administration of stonewalling an audit aimed at verifying Emanuel’s revised, $18 million savings claim from the switch to a grid system for collecting the city’s garbage.

Emily Miller, policy director for the Better Government Association (BGA), has accused Emanuel of turning the “healthy” tension that naturally exists between a mayor and his watchdog into “something more like a playground fight.”

She has urged Emanuel not to let “petty personal issues deny taxpayers the right to have somebody on their side.”

For now, at least, that controversy has been put to rest. The only question is, what happens next summer if Ferguson decides he still has work to do. If the City Council approves the new four-year term, Emanuel would have no choice but to keep him.


Twitter: @fspielman

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