Sunday, February 27, 2011

Emanuel Transition Member Quits Over Ethics Flap

Rahm Emanuel has not even officially taken over as Chicago's next mayor before his incoming administration has been hit with its first ethics flap. Emanuel announced on Wednesday eight people he was naming to a transition team to work with outgoing Mayor Richard Daley's administration. Yesterday, one of the eight, former State Rep. Judy Erwin, was forced to resign from the transition team after the Chicago Tribune discovered she had been forced out of her state job last year and fined by the state ethics commission earlier this month for her misconduct. While serving as the executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, a $191,000 a year position, an investigation learned that Erwin performed campaign work for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, used state resources on the campaign and performed other campaign-related work for Democratic candidates. The ethics report filed on February 15 fined Erwin $4,000 and barred her from future employment with the state of Illinois. Apparently Erwin didn't think the ethics flap would be an issue when she stood by Rahm on Wednesday at the announcement she was being named to his transition team. Oddly, Emanuel's campaign claimed Erwin had been vetted, even though the ethical investigation against her was the worst kept secret in Illinois politics.

A top member of Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel's transition team abruptly resigned after the Tribune inquired about recent findings that she violated state ethics rules by using taxpayer resources for political purposes while serving as executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Judy Erwin, a former state lawmaker who also co-chaired Emanuel's mayoral campaign, stepped down from her high-level state job last summer, was fined and promised to never seek a state job after conceding that she conducted political business on state time, according to a newly filed ethics report.

Erwin admitted using her office e-mail and phone while working on a campaign committee for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, using staff resources to plan her trip to the 2008 Democratic National Convention and engaging in campaign fundraising activity while on the job, the state's Executive Ethics Commission ruled in a decision filed Feb. 16.

The state report went largely unnoticed, however, and Erwin told the Tribune she had not informed Emanuel of the findings before Friday, when the newspaper began its inquiries. She had been named to Emanuel's seven-member transition team just a day earlier.

Erwin's quick departure represents an early embarrassment for an incoming administration that gained a decisive victory last week after campaigning on themes that included bringing further ethics reforms to a city long known for its history of government corruption.

On Saturday, Emanuel spokesman Ben LaBolt said that no decision had been made on whether to replace Erwin on the transition team.

"Judy Erwin is a friend of Rahm's with a wealth of experience and he'll continue to consult her public policy knowledge," LaBolt said in a statement issued late Friday.

LaBolt said members of the transition team had been vetted. But he said the mayor-elect's team had not seen the Executive Ethics Commission report, which was filed days before the mayoral election. Earlier this month, Erwin also was named a managing director of ASGK Public Strategies, the former public affairs consulting firm of David Axelrod, who worked with then-chief of staff Emanuel in the Obama White House.

The ethics commission said Erwin cooperated with the investigation by the executive inspector general, reimbursed the state, agreed to pay a $4,000 fine and promised to never work for the state again. She resigned Aug. 15.
When I worked for the Illinois legislature back in the 1980s, Erwin worked as the press secretary for former Indiana Senate President Phil Rock. For someone who had a reputation for being savvy in media relations, she sure managed to embarrass her friend on the heels of his big mayoral victory this past week. "In an interview with the Tribune, Erwin said she got careless while she was very busy at work, cooperated with investigators and hoped her 30 years of history in state government would outweigh the ruling," the Tribute reported. "She said neither Emanuel nor his campaign was aware of the issue before Friday." It's hard to believe nobody knew about the ethics investigation that prompted her abrupt departure from her state job last year or had notice the publicly-available ethics report issued earlier this month. Matters like that don't remain a secret in state government, particularly when it involves someone as high profile as Erwin is.

The fact Emanuel could care less about her past transgressions until the media made a big deal of it should come as no surprise. The Tribune's John Kass has written a lot in the past about how Emanuel illegally utilized city workers to work on the city's dime during his first run for political office as a U.S. Representative representing Chicago. In Illinois, Democrats have a tradition of using government workers to do political work on their behalf. In the case of Erwin, she was even having staff at the Board of Higher Education assist her in fundraising for a state representative that chaired the committee overseeing higher education. "The atmosphere for IBHE employees must have been heavily colored by Ms. Erwin's political activity on the job," the ethics board said. It found "particularly troubling" her explanation that she made a campaign contribution to a state representative who was the chairman of the higher education appropriations committee: "This suggests that she was responding to a real or imagined pay to play incentive within state government."

I suspect if the news media would have done the type of investigative reporting they subjected Sarah Palin to during the 2008 campaign, they would have uncovered multiple examples of government workers in Illinois like Erwin using their state offices and work hours to assist Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Erwin was not only close to Emanuel, but she had also worked for David Axelrod, Obama's media guru. It is particularly disappointing that the U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's Office in Chicago has given a complete pass to the multiple examples of illegal conduct involving both Emanuel and Obama, while going after their flunky former Gov. Rod Blagojevich with a vengeance. His office covered up how political fixer Tony Rezko was stuffing money in Obama's pocket at the same time he was engaged in pay-to-play shenanigans with Blagojevich. Fitzgerald's prosecutors also prevented evidence of Emanuel's and Obama's involvement in the appointment of Obama's senate successor from seeing the light of day. Blagojevich's lawyers are now fighting to get that evidence in, including recorded phone conversations, in his retrial on public corruption charges by Fitzgerald's office--evidence the government's lawyers successfully suppressed in his last trial. It will be interesting to see if any prosecutor brings charges against Erwin for her admitted crimes.

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