WATCHDOGS: CPS gives $250,000 contract to firm linked to top aide

Forrest Claypool, the Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer, left, with CPS general counsel Ronald Marmer before a Chicago Board of Education meeting earlier this year. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

The Chicago Board of Education approved a deal Wednesday that will pay as much as $250,000 to a law firm where Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and his handpicked general counsel, Ron Marmer, both formerly worked and that still has financial ties to Marmer, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.

Acting in closed session, the Board of Ed formally voted to hire Jenner & Block LLP at the behest of Claypool for work it already had done preparing a never-filed lawsuit against the state seeking increased funding.

Marmer left Jenner & Block in 2013 but is set to receive severance payments from the law firm totaling $1 million, according to records and interviews.

Marmer didn’t respond to interview requests, and CPS declined to make him available.

He reported getting $200,000 from the firm last year, according to the economic disclosure statement he filed for 2015. That was one of five yearly severance installments Marmer is getting, according to CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner, who said the payouts are due to end in 2018.

Under CPS’ code of ethics, no school official can have any “contract management authority” over a board deal with a contractor “with whom the employee has a business relationship” — defined as any transaction worth at least $2,500 in a calendar year to the CPS employee.

The law firm began working for CPS on March 3 and, through June 30, had billed it for more than $182,000, according to records released Wednesday. CPS had refused to release any invoices from the firm for more than two months, since the Sun-Times filed a public records request seeking them in May.

According to Claypool, Marmer wasn’t involved in CPS’ hiring of Jenner & Block, which he said “was my decision” along with Frank Clark, the Board of Ed president.

“He recused himself once Frank and I let it be known we wanted to retain them because of the stakes involved here,” Claypool said. “Jenner & Block is a top litigation firm. We wanted to make sure we had the strongest legal firepower given the existence of the school system was at stake.”

Claypool said the lawsuit wasn’t filed, though, because legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner agreed on a stopgap budget deal, approved June 30, providing hundreds of millions of dollars to CPS in additional funding.

Bittner, the CPS spokeswoman, said of the $1 million the law firm is paying Marmer: “As a former equity partner in Jenner & Block, Ron Marmer is entitled to receive fixed withdrawal payments, which are common among law firms. At Jenner & Block, withdrawal payments are based on years of service and the percentage of firm earnings that the partner was entitled to receive. Payments are typically spread over five years.”

The school board initially balked at Claypool’s recommendation to hire Marmer. After failing to muster the votes to approve his appointment at its September 2015 meeting, the board agreed to so the following month, though two board members opposed Marmer’s appointment to the $185,000-a-year post.

Marmer had no experience working for a school district or other public agency, but Claypool — tabbed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel as his schools chief a year ago — pointed to Marmer’s background as a securities litigator.

Marmer and Claypool worked together decades ago at Jenner & Block. Claypool worked there in 1982, his first job out of law school. Marmer was at the firm from 1978 to 1993 and from 1997 until 2013.

Marmer — who was a sole practitioner after leaving Jenner & Block and started work at CPS on Nov. 2, 2015 — has made $24,000 in campaign contributions to Claypool’s bids for elected office since 2003, including $10,000 toward Claypool’s unsuccessful run for Cook County assessor in 2010. Marmer also gave $5,000 to Emanuel’s 2011 campaign for mayor.

Jenner & Block had done little business with the school board in recent years, CPS records show, being paid about $14,550 the past three years.

The firm is getting CPS’ standard rate of $295 an hour, according to an agreement signed June 20.

The Jenner & Block lawyer who signed the deal with CPS was Randall Mehrberg, who has spent most of his career at Jenner & Block but previously worked for the Chicago Park District for several years in the 1990s, including a period when Claypool was parks chief under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

State records show Mehrberg contributed a total of $30,500 to Claypool’s election campaigns and $5,000 toward each Emanuel bid for mayor, in 2011 and last year.

Mehrberg didn’t return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Jenner & Block spokeswoman Anne Gallagher said, “CPS has asked that we not provide any comment and refer all questions to them.”

According to the invoices released Wednesday, another Jenner & Block lawyer who worked on preparing the CPS case is Blake Sercye, who was political director for Emanuel’s 2011 campaign and had the mayor’s endorsement in his failed bid for a Cook County Board seat in 2014.

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