The city of Chicago's employees, shielded from retaliation by the city's whistle-blower ordinance, are under orders to report suspected misconduct by their fellow workers. Yet, too often, they don't. A recent survey commissioned by the Office of Compliance, created to oversee the city's court-ordered efforts to keep politics out of hiring, revealed that municipal employees report only half the incidents of apparent wrongdoing they witness, while the employees of other large cities report two-thirds of suspicious incidents.
The study, conducted by the nonpartisan Ethics Resource Center, found that Chicago's city workers didn't report discrimination, hiring violations, conflicts of interest and abusive behavior for two very disturbing reasons: They didn't expect corrective action would follow, and they feared that, despite the legal protection to which they're entitled, their co-workers and even their supervisors would retaliate against them.
Mark Meaney, the first deputy director of the Office of Compliance, sees the study as underscoring the need for management training to encourage whistle-blowing. But the problem is much bigger than keeping managers on message.
In fact, the Office of Compliance is itself under fire. Executive Director Anthony Boswell resigned in March, claiming retaliation for his own whistle-blowing. Mr. Boswell had recently returned to his post after a 30-day suspension for allegedly mishandling a sexual harassment complaint. He contends his suspension was punishment for charging Corporation Counsel Mara Georges with trying to change hiring requirements to help her mentor's daughter gain employment with the city. Ms. Georges has denied that charge.
The Office of Compliance, mandated to promote a culture of ethical conduct, has been criticized for lacking independence in two recent reports, one by a court-appointed monitor ordered to bring City Hall hiring into legal compliance and the other by Michael Shakman, a lawyer who for decades has valiantly challenged political hiring.
The city's culture of corruption persists. The code of silence among its employees won't be cracked until the shameful legacy of the Hired Truck scandal, and of embarrassing city hiring and minority contracting scandals, is unambiguously renounced by decisive action.
Mayor Richard M. Daley's first step is a good one - to shift control over the city's hiring practices from the beleaguered Office of Compliance to the city's inspector general, Joseph Ferguson. But Mr. Ferguson needs more funding and more authority, including the right to investigate aldermen and their slush funds, and the right to disclose to the public what he discovers. Only then will city employees, and the rest of us, start to believe that political influence and contract cronyism may be gasping their last breaths.
Our May 2010 Lane Report was adapted from a column published in Crain's Chicago Business on April 19, 2010. Reprinted with permission from Crain Communication Inc., Copyright 2010.
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