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Editorial: CPS can’t afford to flunk ethics, transparency class

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool discusses the school year 2016-2017 budgets, on July 13. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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You’d think a school district that had just weathered the Barbara Byrd-Bennett contract-kickback scandal would be working extra hard on transparency and adhering to ethical rules.

So we’re mystified that CPS is mired in the beginnings of an inspector general investigation into the hiring of a law firm with ties to CPS Chief Executive Officer Forrest Claypool and his general counsel. It’s a sign CPS needs to get serious — really serious — about handling public business in an open and honest way.

To review: Last October, former CPS CEO Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to steering multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts worth more than $23 million to a former boss in exchange for a promise of kickbacks of up to $2.3 million and other sweeteners.

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That was more than an embarrassment for a cash-starved district that needs cooperation all around to get itself on sound financial footing. It was a slap in the face to hardworking teachers, taxpayers and supportive lawmakers, something we hope the CPS brass understands can never happen again. And it showed the risks of what can happen when deals are cut without full transparency.

But now eyebrows are being raised again — this time over hiring of a law firm.

As Dan Mihalopoulos and Lauren FitzPatrick have reported, last month — behind closed doors, no less — the Chicago Board of Education agreed to pay as much as $250,000 to a law firm where Claypool and general counsel, Ron Marmer, both formerly worked and that still has financial ties to Marmer.

The CPS code of ethics is pretty clear about this. It’s a no-no for any CPS official to have any “contract management authority” over any deal with a contractor “with whom the employee has a business relationship.” Deals covered by the code are defined as any transaction worth at least $2,500 in a calendar year to a school system employee.

The law firm CPS hired was Jenner & Block LLP, which was supposed to file a lawsuit to force more state funding. The suit never was filed because Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Legislature agreed on a stopgap budget at the end of June, Claypool said.

Marmer is still receiving severance payments from Jenner & Block, which he left in 2013. A CPS spokesperson said he will get yearly severance payments totaling $1 million through 2018. According to the economic disclosure statement Marmer filed for 2015, he received $200,000 that last year.

Claypool says there is no conflict because Marmer recused himself from the decision to hire Jenner & Block. But CPS hasn’t been forthcoming with the full information that would put everyone’s minds at ease.

When the Sun-Times made Freedom of Information requests for documents, CPS didn’t just use the usual stalling techniques. CPS refused to release any of the firm’s invoices for more than two months after the Sun-Times filed its request in May. It went into complete radio silence mode right up to the day when it was time to vote on the Jenner & Block payment.

When CPS did release the documents, they were so heavily redacted it was impossible to sort out the story of what was actually going on.

More reasons to raise eyebrows: Although Marmer had no experience working for a school district or other public agency when he has hired as CPS attorney last year at Claypool’s urging, he has made $29,000 in campaign contributions to Claypool’s bids for elected office since 2003 and contributed $5,000 to Emanuel’s 2011 campaign for mayor.

Even if the inspector general uncovers no violation of the ethics code, there is a larger point here. Making decisions like this without full transparency undermines the trust CPS needs.

CPS needs the trust of teachers if it is to sign a fair contract. It needs the trust of taxpayers, who are going to be asked to shell out considerably more for the schools. It needs the trust of legislative allies in Springfield who must shepherd through the legislation CPS needs to get its house in order.

The Barbara Byrd-Bennett scandal remains a cloud over CPS. The Board of Education and Claypool need to do a better job of dispelling it.

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