“Show Trial” An Affront To Park Ridge Residents


Back in March, 2008, then-mayor Howard P. Frimark orchestrated a kind of “show trial” of then-Ald. Dave Schmidt by obtaining the public “condemnation” – by Frimark’s Alderpuppets (Alds. Allegretti, Bach, Carey, DiPietro and Ryan) – of Schmidt for disclosing information from a closed session City Council meeting even though that disclosure was perfectly legal under the Illinois Open Meetings Act. 

We branded Frimark’s and the Alderpuppets’ action “a naked political ploy” and “a gratuitous shot” at Schmidt, which it clearly was.

At Monday night’s City Council meeting, now-mayor Schmidt seemingly repaid the “favor” by presiding over a “show trial” of Frimark that appears to have been every bit as nakedly political and gratuitous – by all involved – as its predecessor.  And in the process, Schmidt and the City Council made a mockery of a provision of the City’s ethics ordinance that ironically was enacted during Frimark’s mayoralty to prohibit exactly the kind of conduct in which Frimark admittedly engaged.

Anybody who showed up at City Hall Monday night expecting the Council to vote to prosecute Frimark must have been smoking illegal substances, because the odds against the Alderpuppets holding their political mentor accountable for an ethics violation after having filled his re-election war chest with almost $4,000, cumulatively, were so long that there wasn’t even a Vegas betting line on them.

But what the most naïve observer could not have expected was the theater of the absurd that actually took place over more than two hours of apparently not-very-valuable City Council meeting time.

It started with City Attorney “Buzz” Hill practically begging for an excuse not to officially recommend prosecution for what Hill had already determined to be Frimark’s ethics violation.  It continued with Ald. Ryan’s challenging of Schmidt’s biggest campaign donor – resident and local business owner Tony Svanascini – to dueling disclosures, after Ryan admitted to “about $100” in contributions to Frimark’s campaign when, in reality, he kicked in more than eight times that much.

Next came non-lawyer Ald. DiPietro’s personal anecdotes disputing the City Attorney’s legal interpretation of “agent” and “broker.”  And that was followed by an agitated Ald. Allegretti’s denigrating of the applicable ethics ordinance provision as “goofy,” while also denouncing those attacking Frimark for his six years of serving the City “honorably or dishonorably.” (Yes, he really said that!)    

This charade ended with a whimper when its instigator-in-chief, Mayor Schmidt, announced immediately prior to the Council’s vote that while he believed beyond doubt that Frimark had violated the ethics ordinance, he would vote “No” on prosecution because it would not “further the purpose of the ordinance” now that Uptown developer PRC Partners and the Uptown Condominium Homeowners Association (“UCHA”) had pulled the offending insurance coverage from Frimark, thereby depriving him of the economic benefit of his violation.

Say what?

Schmidt subsequently explained his action in an e-mail [pdf] by claiming that “[t]he purpose of the discussion [Monday] night was not to decide whether Frimark had violated the ordinance”; and “that the public admonishment of Frimark and the fact that he will not profit from the transaction was punishment enough under these particular circumstances.”

Say what!

We scoured the ethics ordinance and could not find “public admonishment” or depriving the violator of his ill-gotten gain mentioned anywhere as the purpose of the ordinance, or as a prescribed remedy or penalty for its violation.  We also found no mention of relying on private parties (like PRC and UCHA) to provide de facto private enforcement of the ordinance, as happened here.  The only thing the ordinance provides for, following prosecution by the City and conviction by a Circuit Court of Cook County judge, is a fine of “not less than $1,000 nor more than $5,000 for each offense,” money which would end up in the depleted City treasury. 

Schmidt’s comments, therefore, reflect a straight-out disregard for the ordinance’s processes and penalties.

The bottom line is that City Attorney Hill found probable cause for prosecution as the result of Frimark’s admission that he sold the insurance that provided coverage to the City and that required payment from the City under its contract with PRC and the UCHA.  In so finding, Hill determined that Frimark was an “agent” for purposes of the ordinance – a finding which is also consistent with the law of Illinois under which all “brokers” are “agents.” 

In the insurance industry, the only basic distinction between “broker” and “agent” is determined by who is the agent’s/broker’s principal. But whether Frimark’s principal was the insurer seeking to sell insurance coverage to the City, or whether his principal was PRC/UCHA buying insurance and seeking contractual contribution from the City for part of that premium, does not change the fact that Frimark was an “agent” of somebody who was seeking “consideration” – in this case, the payment of money – from the City.

By failing to accept Hill’s legally-correct finding and recommendation, Schmidt and the Council not only implicitly endorsed a violation of the ethics ordinance but, at the same time, they gave what amounts to a “no confidence” vote to Hill, whose legal expertise in such matters is paid for by our tax dollars and who is employed to do exactly what he did, albeit reluctantly, Monday night.  They also gave a clear signal that they aren’t serious about ethics in government – or at least not when Howard Frimark is involved.

Had Schmidt made his position known from the outset rather than at the end of those proceedings, everyone in the Council chambers Monday night – and everyone who might watch those proceedings on videotape – could have been spared the two-hours of unvarnished political posturing for which the ethics ordinance served as little more than a cheap prop.  And even though he may not have deserved it, Frimark could have been spared the meaningless ordeal which had him shifting between glad-handing and perp-walking for most of the evening.

Mayor Schmidt and the City Council owed us honest, ethical government.  What they – and Frimark himself – delivered Monday night was a fraud, wrapped in a sham, inside a farce.