The Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general is urging the Chicago Board of Education to fire schools chief Forrest Claypool, a longtime friend of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, for lying during an ethics investigation, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday.
Inspector General Nicholas Schuler recommended Claypool’s firing in a lengthy, still-secret memo he gave to Board of Ed members late Tuesday, the sources said.
In the memo, Schuler reported his findings from a 16-month ethics investigation of CPS’ top attorney that he found Claypool tried to block, according to the sources.
“Forrest made a mistake,” Emanuel said in a written statement Wednesday night. “There’s no question about that, and I take that very seriously. But he was also big enough to stand up, admit his mistake and publicly apologize for it. That says a lot about who Forrest is, and that’s the Forrest I know.
“These are serious allegations, and I know the board is reviewing them with the scrutiny they merit — but Forrest himself has already acknowledged the lapse in judgment and apologized for it. And 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.”
In a separate statement, Frank Clark, the Board of Ed president, credited Claypool for “exemplary leadership” and said: “We take seriously our responsibility to thoughtfully and thoroughly review and evaluate this report and will do so.
Clark said, “Neither board members nor I will have additional comments while we review this report.”
Claypool, whose salary is $250,000 a year, was tapped by Emanuel nearly 2½ years ago to lead the nation’s third-largest school system in the wake of a bribery scandal that sent the previous schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, to prison. At the time, Claypool was the mayor’s chief of staff. He previously ran 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 yearly payments 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 that 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’s allowing Marmer to supervise the firm’s work amounted to “a critical failure of executive judgment,” the story Sunday reported.
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, which 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.
A source said disciplinary action also was recommended for Marmer.
No one mentioned the report during Wednesday’s regular Board of Ed meeting, though Clark said CPS’ improved finances “didn’t happen by chance. It happened because we had extraordinary leadership at the top in our CEO, Forrest Claypool.”
Jesse Sharkey, the Chicago Teachers Union’s vice president, responded on Twitter: “Frank Clark gushes over Claypool and gives him credit that the CEO doesn’t deserve. In fact, it’s protecting Claypool just as the ethical cloud is catching up to him.”
A much more unexpected criticism of Claypool came from Ken Bennett, a former top Emanuel aide who’s the father of Chance the Rapper. During public comments, Bennett noted that he once “was honored” to present an award to Claypool. “This is a good man,” said Bennett, now on the board of the city’s tourism agency, Choose Chicago.
But Bennett added: “This Forrest Claypool is not the man I’ve known for years, and I’m deeply disturbed.”
Citing plans for school closings, Bennett said the Board of Ed needs to provide “stronger oversight” of Claypool.
Contributing: Dan Mihalopoulos