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Shaw: Emanuel is wrong; it’s much ado about something

New Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides over his first City Council meeting Wednesday May 18 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

New Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides over his first City Council meeting on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 27, 2012 6:15AM



Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel tends to parcel out more pithy put-downs than lofty literary lines in his jousts with the media.

But Emanuel deigned to parry with both verbal weapons at the same time recently when he repurposed one of Shakespeare’s most famous titles, “Much Ado About Nothing,” to describe the news that his press office has been surreptitiously, and perhaps illegally, taping phone conversations with reporters.

The mayor doth protest too much, methinks.

Instead of dismissively hiding behind the Bard of Avon, Emanuel should be serving the public by making sure that his administration comes clean.

But all we have so far is his legal staff’s unsubstantiated claim that these recordings were limited to a few Chicago Tribune reporters, and that it won’t happen again. Emanuel is saying, in effect, “trust me. And move on.”

Sorry, Mr. Mayor, that’s not how it works. Many groups, including the Better Government Association, believe that Illinois’ anti-eavesdropping law may have been violated in these instances, and that’s a serious matter.

So serious, in fact, that the city’s inspector general, Joe Ferguson, who’s empowered to ensure that city officials follow the law and to assist in the prosecution of violators, reportedly has begun an investigation.

That’s good and will be even better if city hall cooperates with Ferguson, which hasn’t always been the case.

Emanuel, like his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, claims that Ferguson’s jurisdiction stops at the mayor’s door on certain matters. That assertion prompted a Ferguson lawsuit that’s now in front of the Illinois Supreme Court.

Ferguson’s office won’t discuss any of this with the BGA, citing disclosure prohibitions in the city’s ordinance governing the inspector general’s authority.

But the BGA, in an open letter to Emanuel, supports the inquiry into the phone tapings, calls for the mayor’s cooperation and explains that — as a government watchdog organization that scrutinizes the conduct and policies of public officials — we’re afraid that the city’s press team has been secretly recording conversations between our investigators and administration officials. If so, the letter says, please give us “the dates the recordings took place and the identity of the person or persons making the recordings.”

The letter reminds the Emanuel administration that Illinois’ eavesdropping law “flatly prohibits such conduct under circumstances where a party to the conversation has not consented to the recording.”

Let’s be clear: BGA investigators have no problem with interview subjects recording the conversations as long as they ask first.

And the BGA doesn’t record interviews without getting prior approval. That’s called fair play.

What’s unfair is the mayor’s characterization of this as small potatoes unworthy of further scrutiny. That attitude is also at odds with Emanuel’s pledge to run an administration committed to transparency and accountability.

Yes, Mr. Mayor, we get that you’re confronted every day with the life-and-death challenges of running a big city beset with myriad problems.

But here’s another fact of life: The law is the law, someone in your office messed up, and you have an obligation to get all the facts and make sure that it won’t happen again.

Or as Shakespeare might advise, “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”

Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.

He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097.



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