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July 30, 1997

Government Serving the People

Chicagoans weary of indicted and convicted aldermen will be relieved to learn that their disgraced elected officials shouldn't be blamed for destroying public confidence in city government. Turns out it's just another press conspiracy.

Several of the aldermen who voted against a new ethics ordinance at last week's City Council meeting insisted that the heinous attempt to impose stricter ethics guidelines on the council is a product of the media run amok.

The new ordinance finally gives oversight of the aldermen to someone besides the aldermen--the Chicago Board of Ethics. Even so, the new system is probably meaningless, what with built-in safeguards like the right to appeal the ethics board's decisions to the council's Rules Committee. The Rules Committee has always been charged with investigating and disciplining aldermen. It's never done so. Meanwhile, 22 aldermen have gone to prison in the last 24 years.

Alderman Dorothy Tillman led the opposition forces in the ethics debate. "I don't think any of the aldermen sittin' on this floor or any of us who are workin' so hard have any reason to hold our head down," she declared. One of the aldermen on the floor was Jesse Evans, recently convicted in the federal Silver Shovel investigation of bribe taking, extortion, tax fraud, obstruction of justice, and using aldermanic expense funds to fix and insure his wife's cars. Evans is stubbornly following state law that lets him stay in office until his sentencing in October. He sat through the debate silently, possibly falling asleep a few times, but roused himself enough to vote for the ordinance.

Tillman condemned colleagues who told her they felt they had to vote for the ordinance even though they didn't want to. It's hard to picture anyone confiding in her again after this. "And I'm ashamed of the press!" she yelled. "The press made most of these aldermen vote for this ordinance, go for this, 'cause they said, 'If we don't vote for this, the press gonna eat us up!' Well, the press have done the city of Chicago a disservice, because the press is participating and taking away the legislative branch's power!"

Alderman Robert Shaw invented a conspiracy scenario John Grisham might want to option now that he's run out of ideas. Shaw began with the familiar complaint that U.S. attorney Jim Burns's office is racist for investigating too many minority elected officials--familiar because the media has often reported that theory. But Shaw insisted Burns isn't conducting investigations "over there in DuPage County where Pate Philips is and all white people live....How many times have you read in any newspaper and suggested that they look over there where Pate Philips [lives]?"

Shaw fleshed out his plot a bit further: "Everything I see right around here in Chicago basically are minorities involved. And they throw in one white just to make it appear that they bein' fair," a reference to the recent Silver Shovel indictment of former alderman Larry Bloom. "If you wanna be fair, send a mole out to DuPage County! Send 'em to Kane, Will, and all those other counties! But they don't do that. You know why they don't write about that? Many of the newspaper people live in those counties! And they're happy with what they're doin'! They don't write about it!" Note to Shaw's agent: story still needs a third act.

Alderman Ed Smith argued that oversight by the ethics board is unnecessary because "Jim Burns and the U.S. attorney's office is sendin' aldermens to jail so fast, if we keep goin' the way he's goin' we gonna have to go to Wisconsin to get a quorum to have a council meetin'." Yet Smith blamed low public opinion of the council on the press alone. He was particularly riled by the July 18 Reader headline, "Council Whores."

"This is disgustin'!" he bellowed, holding the paper up. "Now you talkin' about journalism, I guarantee you if you walk across a farmer's farm today and you would stumble into his outhouse and you went up to your mouth and your nose, that whatever you would be standin' on would be this newspaper!"

That got a laugh, but the ordinance still passed, 40-9.

--Cate Plys

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