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At its May 16 meeting, the City’s Board of Ethics approved unanimously and without comment advisory opinions prepared by Deputy City Attorney Michelle Masoncup concerning complaints filed against candidates and elected officials during the campaign season that ended with the April 4 election. At the time the complaints were filed, Misty Witenberg, Robin Rue Simmons, and Carolyn Murray were all candidates for Fifth Ward Alderman. Ms. Rue Simmons won.
The advisory opinions found two ethical violations by now retired but then Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes, both having to do with email communications. Ms. Rue Simmons’s request to a City Committee on behalf of her employer was found to have given the appearance of impropriety but not an ethical violation.
At its April 18 and May 2 meetings, the Board considered complaints by Betty Ester, Madelyn Ducre, Ms. Murray, and Ms. Witenberg. Ms. Ducre’s complaint was against Ald. Holmes and MS. Rue Simmons. Ms. Ester’s complaint was against then-Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Ald. Holmes, Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite, Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle, and Ms. Rue Simmons.
Ms. Ducre’s complaint was found to be so similar to Ms. Ester’s that those two were considered together, and Ms. Murray’s complaint raised similar issues, so Ms. Masoncup addressed those three complaints in one advisory opinion. A second advisory opinion addressed the issues raised by Ms. Witenberg.
Ducre/Ester and Murray Complaints
The Ducre/Ester complaints were filed against Mayor Tisdahl, Ms. Rue Simmons, and Alds. Braithwaite, Holmes, and Revelle. There are five main allegations in the Ester/Ducre Complaint:
that the Mayor’s and Aldermen’s endorsing of candidates violated the City Code;
that Ald. Holmes violated the City Code of Ethics by sending her endorsement of Ms. Rue using her City email and with the help of City staff;
that Ms. Rue Simmons’s serving on the committee to determine the compensation of the next elected City officials four months before she filed her candidacy for alderman and Ald. Holmes’s voting for the compensation were violations of the ethics code;
that Ms. Rue Simmons’s service on the Minority, Women and Evanston Business Enterprise Development Committee when she presented to the City’s Economic Development Committee a request for grant funding for her employer Sunshine Enterprises constituted a conflict of interest;
and that Ms. Simmons’ company, Signature Construction, had been involuntarily dissolved when she was receiving federal funds through HUD’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant to the City.
Ms. Murray also alleged that Ald. Holmes’s distribution of the Fifth Ward newsletter, titled “Time to Move Forward,” after the April 4 election, was a violation of ethics.
Findings re Ester/Ducre and Murray Complaints
The Board found “the mere act of endorsing a candidate for office is not a violation of the Code of Ethics,” thus clearing the Mayor and the Aldermen on that count.
Ald. Holmes’s use of City resources – her City email and City staff – to email her endorsement of Ms. Rue Simmons, however, was found to be “an unauthorized use of City resources” and “incompatible with City Code § 1-10- 4(C).”
Neither Ms. Rue Simmons’s participation in the Compensation Committee nor Ald. Holmes’s voting on the committee’s recommendations was found to be an ethical violation. The Board found Ms. Rue Simmons’s presentation to the City’s Economic Development Committee while she was an employee of Sunshine Enterprises “gave the appearance of impropriety and a personal benefit could be inferred and potential conflict of interest under 1-10-4(c)(3)(b)(2),” but found no ethical violation. The board also found the corporate status of Ms. Rue Simmons’s company, Signature Construction, was not within its jurisdiction.
The Board rejected Ms. Murray’s allegation of an ethics violation in Ald. Holmes’s email distribution of the April issue of the Fifth Ward newsletter.
Ms. Witenberg’s complaint alleged that Ald. Homes violated several sections of the City Code of Ethics when she forwarded emails from Ms. Witenberg to Janet Alexander Davis, a member of Ms. Rue Simmons’s campaign team. Ms. Witenberg said the emails she sent Ald. Holmes concerned were private and were a personal request for assistance “in a situation that she viewed to be acts of intimidation and public safety concerns from the opposing candidate’s campaign team.”
The board found, however, that, since Ms. Witenberg used Ald. Holmes’s City email address, those emails were subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and thus were not private. “There is no privilege between the candidate and the Alderman on a City email server,” according to the advisory opinion. Ms. Masoncup also noted that Ms. Witenberg cannot claim that emails are privileged since she was able to obtain copies of Ald. Holmes’s email through a FOIA request.
The Board found Ald. Holmes’ forwarding Ms. Witenberg’s emails to Ms. Alexander Davis, who was involved in Ms. Rue Simmons’s campaign, violated Section 1- 10-4(A) and (C)(1) of the Ethics Code. “Given Alexander’s known involvement in an opposing candidate’s campaign by Alderman Holmes, it is concerning that Robin Rue Simmons campaign team was provided the information on an opposing candidate’s campaign efforts,” according to the advisory opinion.
Lack of a quorum prevented the Board from meeting in March, while early voting was still going on, Ms. Masoncup wrote in both advisory opinions. “The Board of Ethics wants to take note that the delay in having the complaints addressed until after the election was unavoidable due to quorum issues and the Board does not want process issues to prevent complaints from being timely addressed. The Board will work with the City to improve processes to address complaints more swiftly in the coming months. Process considerations will be addressed at the June 20, 2017 meeting of the Board of Ethics,” she wrote.