Robert Becker and Dan Mihalopoulos, Chicago Tribune
He zones. She sells. And it’s legal.
Alderman OKd zoning for developers who retained his wife as sales agent. She sold homes worth $22 million.
It’s hard to miss Barbara O’Connor’s face on a drive through North Side neighborhoods, where her real estate signs beckon buyers to “find your way home.”
In the last decade she has built a thriving business selling houses and condos, many of which couldn’t have been built without zoning changes the developers sought from the 40th Ward alderman—her husband, Patrick O’Connor.
Barbara O’Connor has sold more than $22 million worth of houses and condos in the O’Connors’ home ward after the projects first got a thumbs up from her husband. And she has sold homes worth millions of dollars in other parts of the city for developers who at one time or another have come to her husband for help.
It’s a situation unique to Chicago, where neighborhood projects live or die on the word of the local alderman, and decisions made long before any public meetings are ultimately rubber-stamped by the City Council.
Patrick O’Connor said his wife’s success has nothing to do with developers’ dependence on his approval. And, he said, there is nothing wrong with him making zoning decisions on projects where his wife ultimately earns a commission.
“While I am concerned about perception, I am more concerned about the laws of the state and the ethics ordinance that the city has,” Patrick O’Connor said in an April interview in his City Hall office. “I’m confident we’ve done everything we possibly can within the letter and the spirit of the law.”
Barbara O’Connor declined to comment.
In its ongoing series, “Neighborhoods for Sale,” the Tribune has detailed how aldermen and developers have used the rules—some written, some not—to their mutual benefit as they presided over a building boom that has remade Chicago neighborhoods.
The public has been largely shut out of a process where decisions are made in private meetings in ward offices. Developers fill the campaign coffers of the very council members who decide the fate of their multimillion-dollar proposals.
In O’Connor’s case, the alderman not only accepts political donations from real estate interests but also benefits when developers hire his wife to sell their properties—all sanctioned by the ethics ordinance instituted by the council.
Barbara O’Connor has sold an entire subdivision built after her husband rezoned the property. She has sold more than $11 million in homes for a developer since he received Patrick O’Connor’s support to build a senior center in his ward, according to city documents and real estate sales records.
Even though the O’Connors file a joint income-tax return, the alderman and city Ethics Board officials say there is no conflict of interest because he doesn’t have a direct personal stake in his wife’s business. The alderman described his wife as “a private individual in a private business with her own career.”
Before her real estate career, Barbara O’Connor was among several members of the O’Connor family who popped up briefly on the City Hall payroll in the 1980s. The alderman defended the hiring of his relatives, but Barbara O’Connor soon left the city payroll and later became a real estate agent.
While Patrick O’Connor has risen to become one of Mayor Richard Daley’s most important council allies, his wife has become a prominent face on the city’s real estate scene as a top-selling agent for Baird & Warner. She marketed properties that were purchased last year for a combined $51.4 million, after totaling $60.6 million in sales in 2006.
Considering that listing agents typically collect a commission equal to 2.5 percent of a property’s selling price, the sale of those properties likely would have generated more than $1 million in commissions for the selling agents.
Ethics experts outside Chicago suggest full disclosure and caution are the best ways for a public official to avoid conflicts of interest involving a spouse. New York, for example, has a general prohibition against elected officials taking any action that could benefit their spouse, including action that could help the spouse’s employer.
Just because an alderman follows the local rules doesn’t mean the public won’t question their actions, said Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University in California. She said the public has a right to wonder whether the alderman had other interests in mind in making development decisions in his ward.
“Often, ethics boards or city attorneys say there is nothing technically wrong, but a reasonable person could look at these situations and say, ‘That doesn’t look right,’ ” Nadler said.
To support his assertion that he followed the rules, O’Connor provided the Tribune with opinions from the city’s Ethics Board and Daley administration lawyers who advised him on avoiding potential conflicts between his official duties and his wife’s business.
But the opinions, and O’Connor’s official actions, paint a confusing picture.
The Ethics Board told O’Connor he does not have a conflict of interest voting on projects from developers who work with his wife. But the Law Department gave him a different opinion in another case, and O’Connor followed that advice to not vote on a zoning change requested by a developer who hired his wife.
The alderman split the difference when it came to a senior housing project for a developer with a long-standing business relationship with his wife. City records show the alderman pushed for approval of the project in his ward and voted for the zoning change when it came before the City Council. Yet a month later he abstained from voting on a minor street issue involving the project, citing his wife’s connection.
O’Connor declined to answer questions about the apparent contradictions, and instead provided a new Ethics Board opinion declaring he did nothing wrong.
Although the city’s ethics law puts the burden on aldermen to be aware of and immediately disclose potential conflict issues, O’Connor told the Tribune, “The rule is not for me to track down every client” his wife has.
“I have a job and I do it. My wife has a job and she does it,” the alderman said. “It’s not my job to prevent her from earning a living.”