Evanston panel tosses out ethics complaint against Tendam

Patrick Svitek, Summer Editor

The Evanston Board of Ethics on Tuesday night unanimously dismissed a complaint against Ald. Mark Tendam (6th) stemming from a $1,000 campaign contribution.

Neighbors Nick Agnew and Claire Delgado had taken issue with Evanston billionaire James N. Pritzker’s donation to Tendam’s re-election effort earlier this year. In their complaint, Agnew said the contribution created an “appearance of impropriety and the potential for conflict of interest” because City Council was weighing two zoning relief applications by Pritzker at the time.

The three members of the board present agreed Agnew and Delgado were asking the panel to mostly rule on ethical questions outside its authority. Holding up a copy of the city’s Code of Ethics, board member Scott Turner repeatedly told Agnew and Delgado that the panel can only address “what is contained in the four corners of this document.”

Agnew and Delgado had brought five counts against Tendam, four of which were tossed out because the board had no jurisdiction to rule on them. The remaining count asked the panel to determine whether Tendam violated the gift ban provision of the Evanston Code of Ethics, which excludes campaign contributions and thus did not apply to the alderman’s situation, according to the board.

Tendam sat in the front row throughout the hearing, shaking his head as the allegations were repeated. Tendam declined to comment after the board’s decision.

The hourlong hearing grew heated as Delgado made her case. Michael C. Dorf, Tendam’s attorney, interrupted Delgado to call her argument the “worst McCarthyism ever,” prompting some gasps in the audience. Minutes later, board chair Mark Sheldon scolded both sides for the feisty back-and-forth.

“Please, both of you stop at this point right now,” he said.

Dorf told the panel that Agnew and Delgado had chosen the wrong forum to air their concerns. For example, Dorf said the Evanston Board of Ethics has no power to determine whether Tendam followed state election law and reported the donation on time.

“It is clear … that they were not interested really in bringing an ethics case,” Dorf said of Agnew and Delgado. “They were interested in having a soapbox to bring their views on things the City Council of Evanston should change.”

Describing the ethics complaint process as “really confusing and seemingly inaccessible,” Delgado said she was ignored by city officials when she asked for specific guidance. Board members were skeptical of her repeated claims that she was not an attorney and thus could not understand the general procedure.

“It just took me typing in keys,” Turner said of his own efforts to make sense of the city’s ethics code.

After the board’s decision, Delgado told The Daily she has spoken with Tendam and assured him the complaint was not personal, but “it just seems to me common sense” to question the contribution.

“It’s kind of a gray zone the whole city is in right now,” Agnew told The Daily after the board’s finding.

Despite its unanimous ruling in favor of Tendam, the panel said it plans to revisit the city’s ethics code regarding the fourth count in the complaint, which asked the board to Evanston law to prohibit city candidates from receiving campaign contributions from anyone with a zoning relief application before the council. Although the panel can only recommend ethics code changes to City Council, Sheldon said the board hopes to address the issue in the “coming years.”

Summer editor Patrick Svitek can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/PatrickSvitek.