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Chicago aldermen face no hurdles in hiring kin

by Allison Riggio and Hunter Clauss

Ebony T. Tillman couldn’t be hired by her alderman mother if this were New York City. Gordon E. Haithcock couldn’t work on his wife’s ward staff if she were a council member in Philadelphia. And Martha Ramos couldn’t work for her fiancé-alderman in Houston.

But here in Chicago things are different, according to a six-month investigation by and published jointly with The Beachwood Reporter. Six of the city’s 50 aldermen employ relatives on their government-funded staffs – and it’s perfectly legal.

Chicago seems to be one of the few cities that allows this dated practice, said Judy Nadler, former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., and senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University.

“It may be that this is something that’s been going on for some time, but that doesn’t necessarily make it correct,” Nadler said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states have nepotism restrictions on the books and 23 others have laws that could be interpreted to bar the hiring of relatives.

“The problem is that perhaps in places like Chicago … where [nepotism] is, in essence, part of the culture, not a lot of people might see it as a problem because they feel, well that’s how things work,” Nadler said.

“You use your connections and you network. Everybody uses some sort of connection to try to get a job, certainly in the private sector. But you have to point out that the public sector is not the private sector-and standards are higher.”

The hiring of family members is illegal in New York City and officials investigate if nepotism is suspected, said Vanessa Legagneur, the assistant counsel of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board Enforcement Unit. The New York City Council’s 51 members represent about 7.9 million.

A section of New York’s city charter states that “city employees can’t do anything that’s in conflict with their city position,” Legagneur said. The charter also states that city employees can’t use their position to benefit an “associate,” a term that is defined to include relatives, she said.

In Houston, which has a population of about 2 million, the practice of hiring relatives is prohibited throughout the city’s various departments, including the personal staffs of all 14 council members, said Connie Acosta, division chief of Houston’s Labor Division and Legal Department.

Nepotism was banned under a policy signed by then-Mayor Kathryn J. Whitmire in 1983. The policy includes a wide definition of who is considered a relative, ranging from grandparents and children to nephews and spouses, and condemns the hiring of relatives as a “conflict of interest.”

Several years ago, Philadelphia experienced a problem with council members hiring spouses and children on their staffs, said Tony Radwanski, spokesman for Philadelphia City Council President Anna C. Verna. The law was changed to prohibit the practice and is monitored by an ethics board. Philadelphia’s 17-member council governs about 1.4 million residents.

The practice of hiring relatives is not banned everywhere.

In Detroit, which has an estimated population of 836,000, the city’s nine council members can hire relatives as long as it is publicly disclosed to all city departments and agencies. As of 2006, council members have 30 days from their appointment to publicly disclose if any of their relatives work for the city.

The transparency in other U.S. cities is not surprising to Adam Bellow, author of “In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History,” and son of author Saul Bellow.

“Chicago is the last bastion of the old nepotistic system,” he said in an interview. “In Chicago, the old system still prevails, and it reminds us of how things really work in this society, despite the veneer of meritocracy.

“Chicago is the only place in the country where nepotism is practiced openly, and without shame or embarrassment.”

Things are different in the business world, though.

Most public and private companies establish rules to ensure family members do not directly supervise one another, said Dow Scott, a professor at Loyola University Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. With the exception of small, family-owned businesses, the accepted practice is to bar such hiring because working with relatives can create issues in the workplace.

“I think it’s also a little unnerving for some people,” Scott said. “The issue creates a lot of unease amongst other people … if there’s tension at home or tension in the family, it comes to work.”

Download the city of Chicago’s payroll database, and learn what aldermen and their challengers say about the practice of hiring relatives.

James Jaworksi contributed to this investigation. To contact the primary reporters send an e-mail to or, or call (312) 344-8907.

City Life Local Politics Public
aldermen chicago city council family hiring nepotism

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