Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday he didn't know his ex-comptroller was under federal investigation until the former aide was indicted last week and dismissed the notion that he should have heeded red flags about the man in Ohio before hiring him.
In his first public comments about Amer Ahmad, Emanuel said he took at face value Ahmad's assertion nearly a month ago that he was abruptly resigning as comptroller without another job lined up because he wanted to spend time with his family and return to the business world.
"He said he wanted time with his family. I understand that, having worked for two presidents and in Congress," Emanuel said. "He wanted personal time and he wanted the ability to go to the private sector to make some money given that he had a young family. That's what he asked for."
Instead, Ahmad was indicted about three weeks later.
He has pleaded not guilty to taking part in a kickback scheme between 2009 and 2011 when he was deputy Ohio state treasurer. The federal indictment says Ahmad gave state investment work to a former high school classmate and that man in turn funneled $400,000 to a landscaping company Ahmad part-owned and another $123,000 to lobbyist Mohammed Noure Alo, described by prosecutors as a "close personal friend and business associate" of Ahmad.
As early as 2010, Ohio newspapers had questioned the connection between Ahmad and Alo because of a treasurer's office contract given to a Boston-based bank that hired Alo as its lobbyist two days before bids were due. At that point, State Street Bank was Alo's only lobbying client, according to reports. The Ohio treasurer's office also hired Alo's wife, the reports said.
Those questions became the basis of a TV attack ad that helped the Republican candidate defeat Ahmad's boss, Democratic Treasurer Kevin Boyce, in Boyce's re-election bid in November 2010.
Despite the red flags, Emanuel on Tuesday contended it was reasonable for him to assume Ahmad was a good choice for the key financial position in Chicago because he was screened during the application process. Mayer Brown attorneys Vincent Connelly and Zaldwaynaka "Z" Scott vetted Ahmad in early 2011 by interviewing him over the phone about the 2010 Ohio banking contract. Emanuel said Ahmad's former employers also gave him the "thumbs up."
"They did a comprehensive background check like they do in any vetting process in any transition," Emanuel said after a ribbon-cutting at the new Jones College Preparatory High School campus in the South Loop. "And as Mr. Connelly answered today in the papers, he answered those in the sense of what they did in the background check."
Ahmad worked at the same New York-based firm, Wasserstein Perella & Co., where Emanuel made his fortune as an investment banker after leaving the Clinton White House and before running for Congress. Emanuel said Tuesday that he had not met Ahmad before he was hired to become Chicago's comptroller.
Ahmad joined the Emanuel administration when the mayor took office in May 2011. The indictment accuses Ahmad of lying to FBI agents during a September 2012 interview. Emanuel said he learned about that interview "when I read it in the papers" after Ahmad's indictment was announced Thursday.
The mayor said Ahmad, not his administration's vetting process, is to blame.
"I think he let the mayor's office and the mayor down," Emanuel said. "He had an obligation when he started to get asked to say he was under questioning. And that's where he violated, in my view, the first trust."
As part of the cleanup, the Emanuel administration last week asked Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton and Inspector General Joseph Ferguson to oversee a joint probe into Ahmad's work in Chicago. On Tuesday, the administration said it had hired two attorneys to help with the review. Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton did not say how much it will cost.
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