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Editorial: Ethics laws can’t stop every schemer

Updated: August 3, 2011 5:27PM

It is in the nature of an editorial page to stand up for integrity in public life, to champion political reform and to pursue the holy grail of clean government.

You know, to be goo-goos.

But there are weeks — this being one — when we feel a bit like chumps, reminded once again that all the laws in the world can’t deter one truly single-minded schemer.

Consider the front-page story this week by Sun-Times reporters Tim Novak and Chris Fusco about how former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s son Patrick raked in $708,999 from a company that landed a Wi-Fi contract for Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports.

As best we can tell, Patrick brought little to the table except his last name, yet his windfall appears perfectly legal because, on paper, he maintained a one-degree of separation from any conflict of interest.

That is to say, it would have been indefensible had City Hall awarded the Wi-Fi contract to a business in which Mayor Daley’s son had an ownership stake. But because Patrick’s financial interest was in the venture capital company that invested in the business that got the lucrative Wi-Fi contract — affording him that one-degree of separation — everybody involved could pretend there was no ethical breach.

In truth, the conflict of interest was blatant. Patrick Daley’s pay from the venture capital firm was linked to the sale price of the Wi-Fi company. The more the company was sold for, the more Patrick would be paid. And, in fact, the company did sell for a 33 percent profit — $45 million — just nine months after landing the big deal at the airports.

So what now? Do we enact a law that bans this latest permutation on conflict of interest? We could, at which point the most devious schemers, feeling limited only by the letter of the law and never by the spirit, will surely devise other deplorable legal scams.

In this game of whack-a-mole, the mole always finds another hole.

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