Forrest Claypool resigned as chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools on Friday, three days after CPS’ top internal investigator called for firing the longtime go-to guy for Mayor Rahm Emanuel for engaging in a “full-blown cover-up” of a top aide’s ethical violation.
Claypool will leave the $250,000-a-year post he’s held for two and a half years on Dec. 31, Emanuel announced at a news conference at CPS headquarters downtown.
He will be replaced by Janice Jackson, now chief education officer, a CPS graduate long seen as Claypool’s eventual successor, who has a daughter attending a CPS school.
Appearing with Emanuel and others at CPS headquarters, Claypool said, “I’m experienced enough to know I have accomplished all I can accomplish here at CPS.”
The resignation of Claypool — who previously was Emanuel’s chief of staff and Chicago Transit Authority president and before that led the Chicago Park District and was a Cook County commissioner — came after Inspector General Nicholas Schuler called for his firing over his conduct during an investigation of the school system’s top lawyer, Ronald Marmer.
It also came two days after the mayor defended Claypool as guilty of only a “lapse in judgment” and said, “I think we should all take a deep breath before making snap judgments about a man with a sterling reputation and a sterling record of public service.”
On Friday, Emanuel called his longtime friend “selfless” at least half a dozen times in as many minutes as he praised Claypool for restoring faith in the schools after his predecessor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, left amid a bribery scandal that sent her to prison.
“He can walk out with his head high because he did the job well, and he will always be my friend,” the mayor said. “He did a great job for the children of the city of Chicago.
“Wherever he has worked, he’s left an incredible, indelible mark on every endeavor,” Emanuel said. “He has been selfless, and more than just selfless, he has been courageous to take on institutional inertia and make the entity — whether it was the park district, the CTA or CPS — better.”
In the 103-page report Schuler delivered to the school board Tuesday, he painted a different picture of Claypool. He said he “repeatedly lied” during the investigation of Marmer for overseeing work for CPS done by his former law firm even as he was receiving payments toward a $1 million severance.
“Claypool greatly compounded the severity of his misconduct when he repeatedly lied to the [inspector general’s office] through two separate interviews,” Schuler wrote.
Schuler called Claypool’s departure “a step toward restoring institutional credibility.”
As he resigned, Claypool offered his own take on his downfall: “Good men can make stupid mistakes.”
The inspector general began investigating Marmer 16 months ago, prompted by Chicago Sun-Times reporting that he said “raised the question of whether” Marmer — CPS’ general counsel and a longtime friend of Claypool — had violated the school system’s ethics code.
The Sun-Times’ reporting revealed that Marmer’s old firm, Jenner & Block, was making $200,000 annual severance payments to him when the Board of Ed hired the firm to pursue a lawsuit seeking more money from the state.
Claypool said then that he saw no problem with Marmer supervising his old firm’s work because he and Clark — not Marmer — hired the firm.
But CPS’ ethics rules bar employees from supervising the work of any contractor they have a business relationship with. Emails obtained by the Sun-Times last year showed Marmer oversaw his old employer’s work for the schools for months — with Claypool’s approval — before the board ratified the firm’s contract.
Schuler found that Claypool and Marmer ignored legal opinions from four in-house lawyers and two outside attorneys. All said Marmer would violate the ethics code by overseeing the work.
Claypool then “searched for an exonerating opinion” and got that from a seventh attorney — J. Timothy Eaton, a campaign contributor Claypool met in college.
Relying on Eaton’s “incorrect” opinion, Schuler said, was “manifestly deceptive and disingenuous.”
Claypool “pushed the matter beyond all bounds” when he was recently interviewed twice by Schuler, the report said. The inspector general said Claypool lied again and again when asked whether he requested a change in invoices submitted by one of the two outside attorneys who were consulted.
At Claypool’s request, the revised invoice concealed that the lawyer — CPS’ labor counsel James Franczek — had provided an opinion on Marmer.
Schuler’s office had worked with federal authorities to investigate and win the criminal conviction of Byrd-Bennett in 2015.
“This is a part of the job that I take no pleasure from,” he said. “It pains me to have to come to decisions like this. There was just simply no other alternative. This was a separation case for any employee. It should be no different here.”
David Axelrod, formerly a top aide in the Obama White House and a close friend of Emanuel and Claypool, had predicted Thursday that Claypool would remain in office.
“The mayor never asked him to” resign, Axelrod said after Claypool quit. “But it’s also obvious that this would be an issue as we enter political season, and that would make it hard to do the job.”
“His own arrogance did him in,” said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, which had called repeatedly for Claypool to quit because of the ethics probe but also was at odds with him over school closings and other matters.
“He was so holier-than-thou and sanctimonious that he would never admit to being wrong,” Sharkey said. “Because, in his mind, there was no such thing as unethical as long as it applied to him.”
Friday’s changing of the guard leaves African-Americans in the top spots at Chicago’s two most important agencies: the schools, with Jackson, and the Chicago Police Department, headed by Supt. Eddie Johnson.
Jackson, 40, who will be interim CEO until the Board of Education confirms her appointment, started out as a social studies teacher at South Shore Community Academy High School and quickly became a principal, first at Al Raby High School on the West Side and then at Westinghouse College Prep.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), who chairs the City Council’s Education Committee, said he thought Claypool “did a great job” cleaning up after the corruption scandal in which Byrd-Bennett steered millions of dollars in contracts to a former employer that offered her a big payout once she left CPS.
But Brookins also hailed Jackson as Claypool’s successor.
“She’s the anti-Forrest, and she’s also an educator,” he said. “She has instant credibility with CTU. At least, they won’t be able to attack her with the label of not being an educator and therefore not knowing what she’s doing in heading that organization.”