Nicholas J. Schuler needs your help.
Schuler thinks the Chicago Board of Education, which spends billions of dollars in taxpayer money, should be up front and open about who gets that money and why, but the board is not — certainly not when it comes to why the school system recently hired a particularly well-connected law firm. And Schuler wants you, the tax-paying public, to raise a stink, which we agree would be excellent.
Sometimes public pressure is the only way to get a good job done.
Schuler is the inspector general of the Chicago Public Schools, so you might think he can get board members and top executives on the phone with ease. But he took the dramatic step last Wednesday of addressing the board at a public meeting like any ordinary Jane or John Q. Citizen — just to put the board on the spot. “The public should know,” he explained, why his investigation is “stalled.”
It is regrettable Schuler was forced to go this route. It is regrettable that a school system still trying to recover from a major scandal last year that involved secret kickbacks to contractors is failing now to go the extra mile to be transparent. And it is especially regrettable that CPS is putting up roadblocks to Schuler’s investigation at a time when skeptics in Springfield are looking for any excuse to deny CPS an extra $215 million in badly needed state funds.
CPS should drop its specious claim of attorney-client privilege. It should hand over to Schuler every document he requests. It should drop objections to him interviewing lawyers and other witnesses.
Schuler’s investigation, begun last summer, was prompted by Chicago Sun-Times stories that the Board of Education had hired an outside law firm where schools CEO Forrest Claypool and his general counsel, Ronald Marmer, formerly worked. Claypool worked at the firm, Jenner & Block LLP, only briefly and decades ago, but Marmer worked there as recently as 2013 and is in the midst of collecting $1 million in severance pay.
CPS’ code of ethics states that school officials can’t supervise the work of a contractor “with whom the employee has a business relationship.”
Whether CPS crossed an ethical line when hiring Jenner & Block is debatable. But CPS’ obligation to cooperate with Schuler to get to the bottom of the matter is not debatable. As Schuler has pointed out, Illinois law spells out that a school district’s inspector general should have “access to all information and personnel necessary to perform the duties of the office.” CPS’ claim of attorney-client privilege is a usually baseless dodge that attorneys general across the country have had to fight time and again.
To our thinking, though, CPS is on the wrong side not only of the law; it is also on the wrong side of the spirit of clean government. Especially after the scandal of last year — when former schools’ CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to steering $23 million in contracts to old business associates in exchange for kickbacks — one might think CPS would want to rush to clear the air at even the first hint of another ethics violation.
Schuler’s fight is not only about the appropriateness of one CPS contract to one outside law firm. For a school system with a $5.7 billion budget, the money involved was not great. Jenner & Block were to be paid up to $250,000 to prepare a never-filed lawsuit against the state for increased funding.
Schuler’s bigger fight is for the right and ability of government inspectors general — at CPS, City Hall, in Springfield and elsewhere — to do the job they were hired to do. Fully empowered inspectors general — backed by an informed public — are essential to more honest and efficient government.
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