On January 16, 2020, on behalf of my client, Coco Soodek, I filed a formal Request for Investigation with the Cook County Board of Ethics regarding Board of Review Commission Michael Cabonargi’s past, present, and ongoing violations of the Cook County Ethics Ordinance’s limitations on campaign contributions. While my client’s request is quite lengthy, I will try to briefly summarize its contents.
The Ethics Ordinance establishes strict contribution limits for anyone who “does business with the County […] is a person required to register as a lobbyist […] or who has sought official action by the County […] [t]o any candidate for County office or elected County official during a single candidacy.” This limitation was explicitly designed to combat “conflict of interest” and “impropriety” concerns raised by the Cook County Board of Review’s commissioners accepting campaign contributions from attorneys who appear before the Board of Review seeking property tax reductions for their clients.
Michael Cabonargi is one such Commissioner at the Board of Review and has been cited for violation of the Ethics Ordinance by the Cook County Board of Ethics at least 126 times and ordered to refund approximately $68,950 in such excess donations. Since these citations, Cabonargi has: (a) Redirected approximately $38,550 of these violative contributions into the a political party committee which is under the direct control of Cabonargi’s fundraisers and operates in his interests; (b) Accepted approximately $76,463 in additional donations that violate the Ethics Ordinance into both his primary and “redirect” committee; and (c) Simply failed to refund approximately $5,200 of the identified violative contributions.
That’s $120,213 in additional campaign contribution violations from Cabonargi after already being caught 126 times. Not a good look.
My client and I believed the foregoing violations of the Ethics Ordinance to be a major injury to the public trust and a basis for investigation, fines, and other remedies from the Board of Ethics. We conducted a press conference at the Board of Review the day after filing and seemed to have some support in the press. My client’s Request for Investigation was reported on by (a) The Chicago Tribune multiple times (January 17, 2020 // March 5, 2020); (b) local radio; and (c) my friend, colleague, and Cabonargi opponent, Jacob Meister.
So, what happened?
Well, three days after my client’s press conference, Cook County President, and huge Michael Cabonargi fan, Toni Preckwinkle fired Peggy Daley – chair of the Board of Ethics and outspoken advocate for ethics reform – without notice or a clear stated reason. President Preckwinkle’s suspected motivations for this firing ranged from Mrs. Daley’s proposed strengthening of the Ethics Ordinance, to her contributions to Mayor Lightfoot’s campaign, or my client’s pending request for Investigation in Cabonargi. While the truth will never be known, all of the most obvious reasons reflect very poorly on President Preckwinkle.
That same week, I spoke at a meeting of the Board of Ethics on behalf of my client. During that meeting, I implored them to open an investigation into Cabonargi for the reasons outlined in our request. I also learned two important things. First, N. Keith Chambers, President Preckwinkle’s appointed Executive Director of the Board of Ethics, had halted audits into violations of the Ethics Ordinance for some time, leaving the board, in essence, without the means to carry out its investigatory duties. Second, Michael Grossman – another member of the Board of Ethics – was so disgusted with President Preckwinkle’s dismissal of Mrs. Daley, that he resigned through one of the most scathing letters I’ve ever read. The letter ended with “you are free to fill my vacancy with someone more likely to do your bidding.” I highly recommend you give it a read.
Having submitted the Request for Investigation, I prepared for the Executive Director’s response. You see, by law, the Executive Director is required to determine whether there is “reasonable cause” to conduct an investigation within thirty (30) days after a request is made. Cook County Board of Ethics, Rules, and Regulations: Section 5.2 (“Review of Complainant Requests for Investigations”). If they think there is, the Executive Director brings the issue to Board of Ethics to act on or starts an investigation themselves. Id., Sections 5.3-5.4. If they consider the request “incomplete or frivolous,” they are required to “promptly notify the complainant of the reason for such rejection” and give notice of the same to the Board of Ethics. Id., Section 5.2. The system is set up to ensure that complaints are either acted on or given transparent public reasons for rejection. The goal, so far as I see it, is to avoid the citizenry’s concerns simply disappearing into a bureaucratic black hole.
Having personally authored the twenty-one-page Request for Investigation which provided evidence of over $120,000 in Ethics Ordinance violations by a sitting County official as supported by twenty-four separate exhibits, I felt fairly comfortable that my client’s request was not “incomplete or frivolous.” So, patiently, I waited.
And waited. And waited.
Ultimately, Executive Director Chambers simply did not issue a response. When I appeared at the Board of Ethics’ next meeting and brought this to his attention he avoided any substantive comment on the topic other than stating that investigations are confidential matters – despite that clearly not being responsive to my comments or his duties. My client, who also attended, rather bluntly commented that it appeared Executive Director Chambers was simply “slow-walking” their response to protect Cabonargi at the behest of President Preckwinkle in advance of the upcoming March 17, 2020 Democratic Primary. As a man of propriety, I would never make such a comment. But my client did and, frankly, it made a lot of sense.
The three remaining members of the Board of Ethics – Juliet Sorensen, Thomas Szromba, and Von Matthews – were all very kind and attentive to our concerns. However, when I pressed them to take immediate action independent from the Executive Director as permitted by their rules, they essentially demurred on the topic. The possible reasons for this are many. As stated above, Executive Director Chambers had essentially dust-binned their audit powers necessary for such work. Further, two of the three board members had terms expiring within the next month. While I’m not a mind-reader, the feeling I got from the room was that President Preckwinkle’s unofficial policy of “ideally no ethics investigations at all but certainly none against my people” had won the day.
Now, one week away from the March 17, 2020 Democratic primary, you might expect me to feel disheartened about the whole thing. After all, the Board of Ethics has been crushed by President Preckwinkle’s official and unofficial actions and my client’s Request for Investigation seems to have gotten nowhere and gotten there … slowly.
Yet, I don’t feel disheartened at all. Self-government is rarely satisfying. It is a business of pragmatics and polity-wide compromise. If “personal glory, “self-fulfillment,” or “always getting what I want” are preconditions to your civic engagement, you are sure to run out of steam quickly.
So, here’s how I look at it. Since filing our complaint, the Chicago Tribune has speculated that Cabonargi’s endorsement by the President Preckwinkle’s party apparatus may be a liability at the polls and endorsed another candidate, citing Cabonargi’s unethical behavior. The last act of Mrs. Daley while on the Board of Ethics was to propose sweeping reforms to the Ethics Ordinance to include several new matters including, most importantly, a prohibition on sexual harassment. In the last three days, Crain’s Chicago has published two articles eviscerating Cabonargi for his preferential treatment of donors who appear before his office and shifting the tax burden onto the rest of us; i.e. exactly the conduct my client was concerned about (March 6, 2020 // March 9, 2020). Most importantly, there is an election in exactly one week and the consensus is that, despite Cabonargi’s contribution violations and being the preferred son of the party, the Clerk’s race is “wide open.”
This time last year, an important government office within the Court I practice in every day was the presumed property of a nakedly corrupt man as further patronage fodder for his masters within the machine. However, as stated above, in the last three months, much attention has been drawn to his many ethical shortcomings. Even if he prevails, I am confident he will tread slightly lighter knowing that the simple con underlying his past political successes has been laid bare for all to see. Moreover, he may lose and a better candidate may prevail. This is an election in Cook County and stranger things have happened. That I have helped contribute to this in some small way is enough for me.