Chicago aldermen worry about false claims against them under whistleblower law
BY FRAN SPIELMAN Sun-Times Media October 2, 2012 5:00PM
Updated: November 4, 2012 6:21AM
Chicago 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 Chicago 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 the city 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.”
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.
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.