Lobbyist registrations surge after fines tied to Emanuel emails

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The hard line taken by Chicago’s reinvigorated Board of Ethics has not discouraged powerful people from lobbying Mayor Rahm Emanuel through the mayor’s private emails. But it has also done wonders for lobbyist registration.

An “all-time record” of 759 lobbyists are now registered with the Board of Ethics, a 27 percent increase over the last year, according to a tweet posted this week by Executive Director Steve Berlin.

Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts is among the new wave of lobbyists.

He emailed Emanuel last year seeking a meeting to discuss the massive Wrigley Field development project “our security issues” tied to an outdoor plaza adjacent to the stadium. After an investigation, the Ethics Board cleared Ricketts without issuing a fine.

Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon noted Wednesday that the registration surge coincided with the board’s decision to come down hard on those who lobby Emanuel through the mayor’s private emails, but fail either to register as lobbyists or report the influence-peddling activity.

“I would hope that it’s up because people lobbying are more sensitive to the registration requirements of the ethics ordinance. I hope, in part, it’s because of what we’ve been doing,” Conlon said.

Cindi Canary, the founder of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform who co-chaired Emanuel’s Ethics Reform Task Force, attributed the surge in lobbyist registration  to “greater scrutiny and enforcement” by the Board of Ethics.

“So much is being made public that it is now very hard to hide in the gray area,” Canary wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Under Conlon’s leadership, the revamped Board of Ethics has been shedding its longtime image as a paper tiger.

Emanuel’s private emails have provided a treasure trove of information that has allowed the board to investigate lobbying offenses it could not investigate on its own.

Fines have been issued against: former Uber executive David Plouffe ($90,000); Uber ($2,000); Jim Abrams, a close friend and heavy contributor to Emanuel ($2,500); Alan King, the attorney husband of Ald. Sophia King (4th) ($2,500); Marc Andreessen ($2,500) and Greg Prather ($2,500).

Former Chicago alderman and mayoral candidate William Singer has also agreed to pay $25,000 to settle a case triggered by his unregistered lobbying on behalf of United Airlines. The airline was fined $2,000.

Last week, the latest batch of emails released by City Hall showed Emanuel warning at least two powerful people about the line they were about to cross.

But after reading those emails closely Conlon said he does not believe that any of them warrant investigation.
They included: a real estate magnate seeking a curb cut to accommodate the church he was renovating into a private home; a longtime mayoral friend seeking an entree for a neighbor who owned a renewable energy firm interested in retrofitting city buildings and Cardinal Blase Cupich, who wanted to discuss his support for private school vouchers.

On Wednesday, Conlon argued that Cupich “speaks for a non-profit,” and is, therefore exempt from lobbying requirements. So is Gary E.W. Rossi, director of real estate for the Marmon Group LLC, who was renovating a Cabrini Green church “for his own benefit.”

Paul Begala’s inquiry on behalf of his neighbor also appears to be covered by an exemption, Conlon said.

In a surprise reversal he hoped would end a marathon legal battle, Emanuel agreed last December to release his private emails and ban city employees from “using their private or other non-city email accounts for the transaction of public business.”

The policy was spelled out in writing to all city employees. It instructed city employees that, if they receive an email pertaining to city business on a non-city account, the email must be promptly forwarded to the city email account. Failure to comply with the new policy “may subject the employee or officials to discipline.”

On Wednesday, Emanuel’s communications director Adam Collins was asked why the mayor was continuing to discuss city business on his private emails accounts, contradicting his own policy for the rest of the city workforce.

“Most of what you saw is people emailing him,” Collins said.

“What should he do if constituents, like those impacted by the Jefferson Park [housing] project, email him? Say, ‘Don’t email me. Don’t contact me?’”

He added, “We did do something different. These private emails are now public. That wasn’t the case before. We told people, ‘If you receive them, turn them over to the city.’ He is receiving them and turning them over to the city and they are being released.”

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