Emanuel reaffirms support for Schools CEO Forrest Claypool

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Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have known each other for about 40 years. | Sun-Times files

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday reaffirmed his support for embattled Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool even though the CPS inspector general has recommended the mayor fire his friend of nearly 40 years.

“His actions were on behalf of getting fair funding from a state that, for decades, had not [provided] fair funding for the children of the city of Chicago,” the mayor said after presiding over a naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens in the City Council chambers.

“Forrest acknowledged that he made a mistake. That’s a sign of character to publicly acknowledge where you’re wrong and take responsibility for it. … And he did it in a very public way.”

Emanuel said there are “two sides to every story.”

Claypool “deserves the right to be heard and he’s prepared to have that heard,” he added. “The report was issued. Forrest is gonna respond. And we have a responsibility to give him that right to respond.”

BACKGROUND: The Watchdogs: CPS lawyer oversaw work done by former firm Claypool contributor approved as CPS general counsel CPS inspector general looks at hiring of firm with Claypool ties IG blasts CPS for allegedly impeding investigation

Emanuel walked away from reporters as he was being reminded that Claypool publicly acknowledged his mistake only after getting caught in a cover-up.

CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler’s harshly-worded report recommending that Claypool be fired for lying during an ethics investigation was released to reporters Thursday morning.

“What kind of signal would it send to CPS employees, parents and children if the CEO was allowed to change records as part of a cover-up and keep his job?” Schuler asked in his final executive memo.

“Why should CPS employees tell the truth in other investigations — as required under Board rules — if repeated lies by the head of the administration are not decisively punished? Elaborate cover-ups are designed to hide improper behavior — not above-board actions — and that was clearly the case here, as evidenced by the pattern of attorney shopping, record changing and lies to investigators. … Any other employee would be fired for such deliberate and protracted deception.”

Claypool, whose salary is $250,000 a year, was tapped by Emanuel nearly two-and-a-half years ago to lead the nation’s third-largest school system in the wake of a bribery scandal that sent the previous school chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, to prison. At the time, Claypool was the mayor’s chief of staff. He previously had run the CTA under Emanuel.

At CPS, Claypool made Ronald Marmer — an old friend and contributor to his past political campaigns — the school system’s general counsel.

Marmer was still receiving $200,000 a year from his former law firm, Jenner & Block, toward a severance from the firm of $1 million, the Sun-Times reported last year in the first of a series of reports that prompted Schuler to begin investigating.

CPS’ ethics rules say employees can’t supervise work by contractors with whom they have a “business relationship” — any transaction worth at least $2,500 in a calendar year.

Claypool hired Jenner & Block to prepare a lawsuit for CPS seeking additional funding from the state and had Marmer oversee the firm’s work.

On Sunday, the Sun-Times reported that documents from the investigation show Claypool scrambled to find legal justification for Marmer’s actions and portrayed the CPS boss as obstructing and delaying Schuler’s investigation.

After getting legal opinions from six in-house and outside lawyers warned this violated CPS’ ethics code, Claypool brought in a seventh attorney — a former campaign contributor — who gave the green light for Marmer to oversee his old firm’s work, the Sun-Times has reported.

Schuler also wrote that Claypool allowing Marmer to supervise the firm’s work amounted to “a critical failure of executive judgment.”

Last month, Claypool said in a letter released by CPS that he mistakenly told Schuler he couldn’t recall asking an outside lawyer to alter an invoice that removed the words “ethics” and “Marmer.” That obscured the fact he’d worked on the matter.

The lawyer — James Franczek, a longtime CPS labor counsel — was one of two outside attorneys who gave Claypool opinions last year that Marmer violated the ethics code.

Wednesday evening, following a Board of Ed public meeting, Schuler spent half an hour in a closed session with the six board members, though not Claypool. Schuler left without commenting.

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