After going through a bumpy procedural process, on Oct. 24 the City’s Board of Ethics held a hearing and reached a decision on Misty Witenberg’s 177-page complaint alleging that Ald. Robin Rue Simmons committed ethics violations. Ms. Witenberg is one of five people who ran for Fifth Ward Alderman in the April 2017 election.
The bulk of the allegations related to grants awarded to Sunshine Enterprises by the City in December 2015, and on May 9, 2016, Sept. 12, 2016, and Jan. 9, 2017. Under the grants Sunshine was to provide training to small-business owners and startup entrepreneurs. Ms. Simmons was an independent contractor for Sunshine between September and December 2015, and was an employee of Sunshine after January 2016.
Many of the allegations related to the time period before Ms. Rue Simmons was elected Fifth Ward Alderman in April 2017. The Board of Ethics considered those allegations in a prior case, No. 17 BOE: 001, and held that there was no violation of the City’s Code of Ethics. On Oct. 24, 2018, the Board held it lacked jurisdiction over Ms. Witenberg’s claims that were based on conduct that occurred prior to the election.
While the Board ruled on 12 claims on Oct. 24, two stood out. First, after Ms. Rue Simmons became an alderman, City Council on Jan. 8, 2018, voted to approve a payment to Sunshine that was due under the Jan. 9, 2017 grant. Ms. Witenberg argued that a significant portion of the funds paid to Sunshine were used to pay Ald. Rue Simmons’ salary.
Ald. Rue Simmons abstained from voting on the motion to approve funding to Sunshine. The Board found that Ald. Rue Simmons’s abstention was a reasonable way to address the issue, and there was no violation of the ethics code.
Ms. Witenberg also claimed that Ald. Rue Simmons, as a member of the Economic Development Committee (EDC), voted on June 28, 2017, to approve guidelines for people to apply for an entrepreneurial grant from the City. Under the guidelines, applicants were required to complete training provided by Sunshine Enterprises or to complete “equivalent” training. The guidelines identified five other organizations that provided equivalent training. The EDC unanimously approved the guidelines, 8-0. Ald. Simmons did not abstain from voting.
Board Chair Jennifer Billingsley, Chair of the Ethics Board, said because Ald. Simmons’s employer was named in the guidelines approved by the EDC, “I feel that a recusal would have been appropriate.” She added, though, that she did not think that Ald. Simmons personally benefited by EDC’s decision.
Board member Karena Bierman, said, “I’m not seeing this is an intentional violation of ethics for personal benefit that has been alleged. I do think this could have been avoided by better judgment. I don’t think it rises to the level to be a violation of the Code of Ethics. I’m not willing to do that under these facts.”
The Ethics Board decided to find that Ald. Rue Simmons did not violate the City’s ethics code. But the Board also decided to put guidance in their decision that if an alderperson’s employer is named in a motion, the alderperson should recuse himself or herself from voting in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest or a personal benefit. The Board also decided to cite the facts of the Ald. Rue Simmons’s case as an example.
The Board is expected to enter a final written decision at its next meeting.
Ms. Billingsley, Ms. Bierman, and LJ Ellul voted in favor of the Board’s decision. Vincent Thomas and Elizabeth Gustafson recused themselves from participating in the decision.