I-Team Report: Unaccounted
March 18, 2009 (WLS) -- What happens when Chicago aldermen get their hands on generous expense accounts? And why isn't anyone watching?
The economy may be in the tank but Chicago aldermen are now flush with spending money. Their expense allotment more than doubled last year.
Each of the fifty members of Chicago's City Council now receives $73,280 a year for expenses.
The I-Team took a look at where some of that tax money goes and why some of it is unaccounted.
Chicago overlooks part of the largest fresh water body in the world which provides drinking water for millions of us.
But according to city expense records obtained by the I-Team, Lake Michigan water isn't good enough for most Chicago alderman. They pay thousands of dollars a year from their city expense accounts to have bottled water delivered to their ward offices.
Among them is South Side alderman Anthony Beale who also paid more than $16,000 in tax money last year to a public relations firm that helps prepare ward newsletters sent out a few times a year, screens press calls, and sets up media interviews such as ours.
Goudie: "Nobody else in the city council has a public relations agency handling their calls from the media.
Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward: I do know that the mayor has a very large media staff, um, and ya know, we're basically the mayor of a small ward."
City council rules allow the $73,000 in expense money to be spent on anything that aldermen consider "ordinary and necessary."
In some cases, purchases and payments are first made by the aldermen themselves or their election campaigns, meaning that the city many times reimburses alderman personally or their political organizations.
"There always should be a separation between the candidate's election campaign and whatever governing body that they're representing. That just seems like good common sense and good government practice," said Patrick Rehkamp, Better Government Association.
According to state campaign records obtained by the Better Government Association, North Side alderman Mary Ann Smith's political fund was reimbursed by the city for tens of thousands of dollars in expenses last year alone.
"You look at it and you think, well why did we do it this way? Well, we did it this way just because we always have," said Ald. Mary Ann Smith, 48th Ward.
"Seems like bad record keeping to be paying for things out of your re-election campaign and then have the city reimburse you for it," said Rehkamp.
"Well, believe me, I'll never do it again. I would say I'm making good use of this money. And I wouldn't want it taken away from me," said Smith.
The city council has always policed itself when it comes to expense spending. That would change under several proposed ordinances introduced at Wednesday's city council meeting, aimed at allowing the city inspector general to directly investigate aldermanic activities.
"The public outrage and anger is so palpable now," said Ald. Joe Moore, 49th Ward.
One from North Side alderman Joe Moore; the other from North Side alderman Patrick O'Connor.
"The inspector general would be appointed through a process that's collaborative between the mayor's office and the city council...It would address concerns over who would actually be the steering or the guiding force behind the inspector general's office," said Ald. Patrick O'Connor, 40th Ward.
"All of us who try to do our job honestly should invite the scrutiny of the inspector general," said Moore.
Such oversight and accountability might have prevented this from getting through last year: several hundred thousand dollars of expenses attributed to two dozen alderman without any description, the vendor name completely blank. All of them were filed in late December in what appeared to be a mysterious year-end rush for reimbursement, some for as much as $35,000.
When the I-Team contacted the aldermen responsible for these baffling one-time expenses, several were dumbfounded.
Late on Wednesday, the city finance department told the I-Team the blank entries were the result of "housekeeping" and "administrative adjustments" to cover new aldermanic staffer who were mistakenly being paid from the wrong budget - nothing sinister.
"Nobody gets a check made out to nobody from the comptroller. We're a little bit beyond that at this point in this time," said O'Connor.
Alderman O'Connor was harking back to that famous Chicago political tale of a ward committeeman who spotted a new face in the office. The committeeman asked him, "Who sent you kid?" The young man replied, "Nobody sent me." To which the politician said, "We don't want nobody that nobody sent."
i-team, chuck goudie
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