THE WATCHDOGS: CPS lawyer oversaw work done by his former firm

SHARE THE WATCHDOGS: CPS lawyer oversaw work done by his former firm

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool (left) with CPS general counsel Ronald Marmer in 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The top attorney for the Chicago Public Schools supervised work done for CPS by a law firm that’s still making $200,000-a-year severance payments to him, email records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

When the Sun-Times first reported in July that CPS had hired Jenner & Block LLP, schools CEO Forrest Claypool said his hand-picked general counsel, Ronald Marmer, “recused himself” and had no role in choosing the firm.

But the newly obtained documents show Marmer reviewed drafts of a lawsuit the firm was preparing to file on behalf of CPS and sent revisions of the planned suit to Jenner & Block lawyers.

The records also show Claypool knew Marmer was communicating with Jenner & Block about the case.

Both Marmer and Claypool previously worked for Jenner & Block.

Marmer is getting $1 million in severance from the firm in five yearly installments due to end in 2018.

Under CPS’ ethics code, employees are barred from exercising any sort of “contract management authority” over a schools contractor “with whom the employee has a business relationship.”

The ethics code defines a business relationship as a transaction worth at least $2,500 in a calendar year to a schools’ official. And the code’s definition of contract management authority includes “supervision of contract performance.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner says officials “concluded that Mr. Marmer’s participation on substantive issues was consistent with the board’s ethics policy.”

“Ron Marmer’s business relationship with Jenner & Block ended on Dec. 31, 2013,” when he left the firm, Bittner said.

Bittner also says Marmer “doesn’t own an economic interest in Jenner & Block” and is entitled to the fixed severance payments from the firm.

CPS officials hired the firm earlier this year to prepare a civil rights lawsuit against the state of Illinois seeking increased funding for the state’s largest public school district. The suit has not been filed.

“The Board of Education wanted to ensure that the best possible resources and minds were dedicated to crafting a winning lawsuit so that we could end the racially discriminatory state education-funding formula,” Bittner says.

The Sun-Times report in July revealing the firm’s ongoing financial payments to Marmer prompted CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler to open an investigation. Schuler says the investigation is ongoing but declined to comment further.

Under the CPS ethics code, violations could result in punishment as severe as suspension or firing.

Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says the involvement of Marmer in supervising Jenner & Block “definitely is not in keeping with the spirit of the law.”

“The employee is engaging with a contractor who is paying him,” she says. “CPS parents and taxpayers don’t want to see any relationship between contractors and employees.”

Because of CPS’ deep financial problems and the corruption conviction last year of former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, schools officials “have to be really careful not to even give the impression of impropriety,” Brune says.

Marmer disclosed the severance deal he’s getting as a former partner at Jenner & Block in an “ethics questionnaire” he completed before CPS hired him last year and in his “statement of business and financial interests” filed in March.

Emails show Marmer sought guidance from the school system’s in-house ethics adviser in filling out the form, which requires officials to report annually whether “you or a relative have an economic interest” in a company doing business with the schools.

CPS officials declined to disclose what the adviser, Andra Gomberg, told Marmer.

CPS officials did, however, give the Sun-Times a copy of an opinion issued in June by another law firm they hired, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP. According to Taft, it was OK for Marmer to be involved in overseeing Jenner & Block’s work for the schools because he “does not ‘own’ any economic interest in Jenner.”

But the opinion from Taft — which also is representing CPS in the inspector general’s investigation — did not address whether Marmer had a business relationship with Jenner & Block.

The ethics code outlines six exceptions to its definition of a business relationship as being paid $2,500 a year or more by a CPS contractor. None of those exceptions covers arrangements such as Marmer’s severance deal.

The Taft lawyer who wrote the opinion for CPS, J. Timothy Eaton, has contributed $5,000 to the political campaigns of Claypool, a former Cook County Board commissioner.

The suit against the state wasn’t filed, Claypool has said, because lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner agreed on a stopgap budget deal on June 30 providing CPS with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding.

The school board voted in closed session July 27 to pay as much as $250,000 to Jenner & Block for its work on the abandoned legal fight. CPS ended up paying the firm more than $182,000.

CPS agreed to pay the firm $295 an hour, its standard rate for outside counsel. Initially, though, the school system signed a deal that would have paid Jenner & Block at its much higher, normal hourly rates if the suit succeeded in winning any money, records show.

Claypool says he and school board President Frank Clark chose Jenner & Block.

But CPS emails, released in response to a request made under the state’s open-records law, show Marmer was deeply involved at an early stage in CPS’ dealings with Jenner & Block and communicated with the firm frequently as the proposed suit was prepared.

Randall Mehrberg. | Jenner & Block

Randall Mehrberg. | Jenner & Block

Claypool and Marmer discussed the possible litigation against the state in emails on Feb. 7. Sixteen days later, Claypool received a request for a meeting from Randall Mehrberg, the lawyer who later signed the deal with CPS and led Jenner & Block’s work on the never-filed lawsuit.

Mehrberg had worked for Claypool in the 1990s, when Claypool headed the Chicago Park District under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. Mehrberg also served briefly as a volunteer adviser to Claypool in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office while Claypool was chief of staff in 2015.

Mehrberg was set to return to work at Jenner & Block when he contacted Claypool in February.

Claypool asked Marmer if the proposed time of a meeting with Mehrberg would “work for you.” Marmer replied that it did.

On March 1, Mehrberg again wrote to Claypool, saying, “I started at Jenner today. I will get the file opened.”

Two days later, Mehrberg wrote to Marmer at CPS to “establish direct lines of communication” between the general counsel and the firm. On that same day, Jenner & Block began billing CPS.

Another Jenner & Block lawyer wrote to Marmer the following week, saying, “Ron, we have a legal team in place.”

Marmer wrote to Claypool, “I will recuse from negotiating financial terms” with Jenner & Block. Marmer also said his top aide in the CPS legal department could sign the engagement letter with the firm.

Yet, Marmer continued to supervise Jenner & Block’s work.

On April 1, Mehrberg sent Marmer a “draft complaint.” Marmer told Claypool he had received the draft of the lawsuit, adding, “You and I should discuss the approach.”

Four days later, Marmer emailed Claypool, telling his boss, “I sent Jenner my revised draft with a few minor tweaks this morning.”

Twice in April, Mehrberg reported to Claypool that he’d had a “good conversation” with Marmer about the draft of the lawsuit.

“Great,” Claypool replied to one of those emails.

Also in April, Jenner & Block lawyers sent Marmer “a quick update for you on our status” and gave him a new version of the proposed complaint against the state.

In a statement, the firm said its contract with CPS was a good deal for the schools that “involved substantially reduced economics.”

“Jenner & Block has had a longstanding commitment to public service,” says the firm’s managing partner, Terrence J. Truax.

Claypool got his first job out of law school at Jenner & Block in 1982, according to the state attorney-registration agency. Marmer and Mehrberg were working for the firm at that time.

While Claypool quickly moved on to prominent roles in government and politics, he maintained ties to the firm and to Marmer and Mehrberg, who have spent much of their careers at Jenner & Block.

According to court records, the firm represented Claypool in 1999, when a Jenner & Block lawyer filed a petition in a dispute with Claypool’s ex-wife over child visitation rights.

Mehrberg has given more than $30,000 to Claypool’s campaign committees. Marmer has contributed $24,000 to Claypool’s bids for elected office, including $10,000 toward his unsuccessful run for Cook County assessor in 2010.

After 30 years with Jenner & Block, Marmer became CPS’ general counsel in October 2015. Emanuel-appointed school board members approved Claypool’s decision to bring him on, though two board members voted no.

Mehrberg worked about 17 years at the firm, state licensing records show, in two stints before and after his time at the park district with Claypool.

Before rejoining Jenner & Block this year, Mehrberg spent a brief period in the mayor’s office while Claypool was Emanuel’s $215,000-a-year chief of staff. Emanuel administration officials say Mehrberg wasn’t paid, though Mehrberg had a City Hall office, email account and phone number, and he attended many meetings with Emanuel and top aides.

“Randy volunteered his time and energy to advise the senior team and staff here on a variety of issues,” Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins says.

Mehrberg hosted a pizza party for the mayor’s office staff after arriving at City Hall in May 2015. A couple months later, Claypool emailed him to say he would be announced as the new CPS chief executive.

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