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Aldermen worry about false claims against them under whistleblower law

At City Hall Mayor Rahm Emanuel  City Council meeting listens an alderman speak.   |  Al Podgorski~Chicago

At City Hall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the City Council meeting listens to an alderman speak. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:16AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to protect “outside parties” who blow the whistle on City Hall corruption ran into unexpected opposition Tuesday from aldermen concerned about being falsely accused of shakedowns after standing up to problem businesses.

The City Council’s Rules Committee ultimately went along with Emanuel’s plan to broaden the umbrella of whistleblower protection to cover individuals and businesses denied city contracts, permits, subsidies, services or jobs after reporting misconduct by elected officials, city department heads or city employees.

But not before several aldermen voiced concerns about the potential consequences for aldermen who dare to stand up for their communities.

The ordinance contemplates a two-tier process for whistleblowers who believe they have been victims of retaliation. They would be required to “bring the matter to the attention” of the corporation counsel and city department head within 30 days to offer City Hall an opportunity to take corrective action.

If the alleged retaliation was not reversed, the individual or business would then have six months to file a lawsuit against the city or elected official.

Emanuel praised the changes Tuesday, saying: “This extension of the ethics reforms . . . will ensure that all residents can report ethics violations without the fear of losing a building permit, vital city services or a job opportunity because they reported unethical conduct, We have significantly strengthened Chicago’s ethics regulations, closed loopholes and enhanced penalties on those who violate ethics laws, and we will continue to enhance the city’s ethics rules to create a culture of honesty and accountability throughout City government.”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) famously denied a sign permit to Felony Franks only to be reversed after the owner of the hot dog stand that hired ex-felons won a First Amendment lawsuit against the city.

More recently, the alderman has been targeting grocery stores that, he claims, sell rotten produce, sugary drinks and sodium-filled packaged goods and serve as magnets for drug dealers.

“These grand conspiracies erupt [about alleged shakedowns that never happened]. We have to be careful what we’re doing here. I could see some of these folks who are leaches in our community [making up allegations] against aggressive aldermen,” Fioretti said.

“These ordinances are good. Don’t get me wrong. But if we’re being the kind of aldermen we should be, we’re gonna have a lot of push-back. What do we need to do to document things to make sure we’re on the right side here?”

Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeff Levine said aldermen have nothing to fear, provided they establish a “clear record for the basis” of their actions.

“I hear you describing unwholesome food. That clearly is a basis for regulatory actions,” Levine said.

Ald. John Pope (10th) raised similar concerns about being the target of false whistleblower claims.

Pope said he’s been working with local chambers of commerce to discourage additional tire shops, tattoo parlors and dollar stores in areas where there are already “ten of `em on the block.”

The alderman asked Levine, “Is that legitimate? Is there any description or definition of what legitimate is? We may not have any kind of legal reason to deny them [a special use permit], but we’re strongly discouraging that because of our decision to not have that kind of additional activity in the community.”

Levine replied, “We’re talking about retaliation taken in response to a person bringing to light city wrongdoing. . . If the aggrieved person here said, `I have evidence that Ald. Pope took a bribe and in response, you said, `No tire shop for you,’ that would be the scenario” that would fall under the scope of the ordinance.

The revised ethics ordinance approved by the City Council on July 25 protected full- and part-time city employees from retaliation.

The mayor’s latest amendment would extend it to city contractors, job applicants and anyone else who dares to disclose — or even threatens to disclose — unlawful conduct as well as anyone who provides information in an investigation or hearing.

If permits, licenses or jobs are denied, applications could be reconsidered. If companies are eliminated from competition for a city contract as punishment for information provided, the selection process could be repeated.

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