When it comes to full disclosure and strict ethical behavior, the Chicago Public Schools seem content to plod along with a grade just above failing.
The Barbara Byrd-Bennett scandal of 2015, in which the school district’s former CEO schemed to collect kickbacks for contracts, is barely in Chicago’s rear-view mirror. So you might hope the current CEO, Forrest Claypool, is working late after class to restore the district’s credibility on matters of money.
But this month, CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler concluded that the district violated its ethics code by permitting general counsel Ronald Marmer to supervise $182,000 in work being done for CPS by his former law firm — even as the firm was paying him a seven-figure severance package. Worse yet, Schuler accused Claypool of an “apparent whitewash attempt.”
At the time the ethics violation first came to light, in a story last year by Sun-Times reporters Lauren Fitzpatrick and Dan Mihalopoulos, CPS and Claypool could have acknowledged they made a mistake. And, for good measure, they could have said that in the future Marmer would not supervise any legal work done for CPS by his old law firm.
The lapse in ethics was not egregious. Everybody would have moved on.
For that matter, if Claypool thought the ethics rule was unnecessarily narrow and constricting, he could have said that, too, and proposed a sensible alternative.
But, to this day, none of that has happened. Instead, Claypool has consistently defended Marmer’s actions.
The inspector general’s findings that this cozy arrangement violated CPS’ ethics code should have surprised nobody at CPS, given that Claypool had to shop around to find a lawyer who said otherwise.
According to Schuler, six lawyers warned school officials that Marmer was violating the ethics code. It wasn’t until CPS officials consulted a seventh lawyer that they got the answer they wanted.
And, for what it’s worth, who was this seventh lawyer? Timothy Eaton, a contributor to Claypool’s political campaigns.
As Schuler wrote to the school board, “The clear inference is that Claypool had to shop through six lawyers until he found a seventh one who would publicly clear Marmer.”
CPS’ formal code of ethics couldn’t be much plainer. No CPS official may have “contract management authority” over work by a contractor “with whom the employee has a business relationship.” The code covers deals that total at least $2,500 in a calendar year. Marmer’s severance package with his old firm, Jenner & Block, is for $1 million over five years.
You don’t have to take a class in advanced mathematics to see that’s a lot more than $2,500.
But the Marmer conflict is not CPS’ only ethical problem. In August, the Sun-Times reported CPS had sharply increased payments to three consulting firms with close ties to Claypool.
To hear Claypool tell it, there’s no problem anywhere. He says Marmer has no conflict because he recused himself from the decision to hire Jenner & Block. As for the increased payments to the three consulting firms, he says he needed “skilled experts” to address CPS’ $1.1 billion deficit and turned to partners who helped him when he was leading the Chicago Park District and the CTA.
That might have been an excellent argument to make at the very outset of all this — upfront and in public, at a school board meeting, in a spirit of full disclosure. Anybody who has worked in management understands the desire to rehire tried-and-true people you can trust to do a job.
But Claypool didn’t do that. He left it to investigative reporters and an inspector general to figure out where he had crossed the line and call him on it.
If trust in the management of the Chicago Public Schools remains low, Claypool and his team only have themselves to blame.
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