by Dana Kozlov and Todd Feurer
CHICAGO (CBS) — The city's ethics board has determined there is probable cause to believe Ald. James Gardiner (45th) twice violated the city's government ethics ordinance, by using his office to retaliate against constituents who criticized him or supported a political rival.
Gardiner may challenge the Chicago Board of Ethics' finding, which was reached during their Monday meeting and made public on Wednesday. If the board determines Gardiner did violate the ethics ordinance, he could face a fine of up to $5,000 per violation. The board's decision does not name Gardiner specifically, based on its internal rules of procedure, but makes clear from context it's ruling is about the alderman.
The board also called for Inspector General Joseph Ferguson's office to conduct "a full factual investigation into any other instances where this official's conduct may have violated these or other Ordinance provisions.."
Gardiner's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot had already recommended the Inspector General's office look into reports Gardiner had retaliated against political opponents, and denied city services to constituents who have criticized him. She also wants the city's watchdog to look into a series of offensive and misogynistic text messages in which Gardiner used slurs when talking about another alderman and women who work in city politics.
The board said its decision is based on publicly available documents, which they said showed he directed one of his staffers "to consider and discuss with the official withholding City services to a constituent because the constituent appears to have supported a political opponent," and directed a staffer under his supervision "to obtain and 'leak' to social media criminal records of a constituent who had taken a position on matter different from the official's."
The board said directing employees in such a way also violates the ethics ordinance's ban on using city resources for personal matters, as well as a provision requiring city officials to to "treat members of the public with respect and be responsive and forthcoming in their requests for information" and "act impartially in the performance of their duties, so that no private organization or individual is given preferential treatment."
CBS 2 obtained texts in which Gardiner suggested he used a ward staffer to get private court records he could use in retaliation against a political opponent.
James Suh lives in the 45th Ward. In 2019, Suh organized a rally against the then-newly-elected Ald. Gardiner – protesting Gardiner's stance on a senior development project at Six Corners – Milwaukee Avenue, Cicero Avenue, and Irving Park Road – in the Portage Park neighborhood. A day later, texts indicated Gardiner wanted revenge.
"It's just so disturbing and surreal to think that an elected official would want to retaliate and intimidate someone into silence," Suh told CBS 2 Investigator Dana Kozlov last week.
CBS 2 obtained the text exchange directly from one of Gardiner's former staffers, who saved them. The staffer said a ward employee got court records through a relative who works in the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk's office, and passed them on.
Under pictures of those records, Gardiner texts: "James Suh says I overstep boundaries? Maybe that gets leaked."
Afterward comes a discussion about getting Suh's mug shot and sharing the information with an ally who runs a ward Facebook page.
"For sure, there needs to be some sort of punitive action," Suh said.
On Wednesday, in light of the Board of Ethics findings, Suh told CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov that he feels vindicated.
"It's good to see that there is finally some recognition that the alderman's conduct was simply not acceptable," he said.
Leaked text messages obtained by CBS 2 also show constituents who disagree with the freshman aldermen are often targeted by Gardiner, among them a resident to whom he tried denying city services.
Livingston is referring to a series of leaked text messages sent by Gardiner to a former staffer, who provided CBS 2 with screenshots.
"I'm raising three boys. I don't want them to think this behavior is OK," Stephanie Livingston, a 45th Ward resident, told CBS 2 on Monday, as several of Gardiner's constituents held a rally demanding his resignation. "It's absolutely not OK."
The ethics board's announcement comes one day after Gardiner apologized on the floor of the City Council for his offensive text messages.
"I stand before this body to offer my sincerest apologies for the pain and insult that anyone has endured as a result. I take full responsibility for my offensive words in those messages," Gardiner said. "I want to make it clear that I have never acted on those rants. However, they should not have been expressed, and it certainly was not my intention to demean anyone."
Political consultant Joanna Klonsky and aldermanic aide Anne Emerson both were the targets of disparaging texts sent by Gardiner in 2019. The messages were sent to a former staffer who leaked them to CBS 2.
In some of the texts, which were obtained by Kozlov, Gardiner refers to women as "bitch" and used that word to describe a fellow alderman.
In one text, after Gardiner is informed Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) was attending an event, Gardiner replied, "Nice. Is his bitch with him? White girl w blonde dirty hair?" Gardiner was referring to Emerson, Waguespack's chief of staff.
In another text, Gardiner refers to Ald. Tom Tunney as a "bitch" and a "f—ing snake" after Tunney showed up for a meeting, which Gardiner did not expect. The text ends with Gardiner saying, "F–k him."
In yet another exchange, Gardiner refers to Klonsky, a local political communications director, as a "dumb bitch."
Gardiner met privately with Klonsky and Emerson on Tuesday. They released a joint statement that reads in part: "We communicated to the alderman our concerns about his apparent habitual use of misogynistic and degrading language. We asked him to consider the linkages between such language and his other concerning behavior."
Gardiner's leaked messages also threaten to withhold city services from a constituent who opposed him, and even show the alderman asking a staffer to run a background check on a woman who had filed an order of protection the alderman.
Gardiner did not address charges of retaliation in his apology. He also has not responded to our requests for comments – his staffers even ignored Kozlov and then closed the blinds at his ward office when Kozlov came by last week.
But Suh said action being taken now comes eight months after he sent the city's Inspector General and Board of Ethics an email about Gardiner's conduct, asking for an investigation.
"I received an email response acknowledging that they received my email, and beyond that, I never heard anything else," Suh said.
As the calls grow louder for the alderman to give up his job, he's also facing a federal investigation – which has been going on for months.
Kozlov has confirmed that federal investigators have launched a probe into Gardiner's conduct in office, including whether he retaliated against critics and political opponents in his ward. Published reports state federal investigators also are looking into claims Gardiner took bribes and demanded payments before taking official actions.
Gardiner is also a Cook County Democratic Party committee member. Seventeen fellow committee members requested his conduct also be investigated by the party, and that investigation is also now under way.
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