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City treasurer defends decision to hire private security at public expense

Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin and Mayor Lori Lightfoot feuded via email after the two CPD officers protecting Conyears-Ervin were reassigned. She said the officers were pulled before a threat assessment was completed.

City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin
“When you pull from my security detail and pull from the clerk’s security detail to add to the mayor’s detail, that’s not shared sacrifice,” City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin said Monday.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin on Monday defended her decision to hire private security — at taxpayers’ expense — to replace a police bodyguard detail stripped away by Mayor Lori Lightfoot with less than 48 hours’ notice.

“I live in the [Harrison] District. I know first-hand the need for safety on the streets. I am a reasonable person. I am an adult. As adults, we can sit down and talk about a shared sacrifice,” Conyears-Ervin said.

“But when you pull from my security detail and pull from the clerk’s security detail to add to the mayor’s detail, that’s not shared sacrifice.”

Conyears-Ervin said the decision to reassign the two Chicago Police officers who had been protecting her was made in August, before a threat assessment was ever done to determine the risk to her personal safety. City treasurers have had police protection for 50 years.

She accused CPD of conducting a “sham assessment” after the fact to justify a decision that could not be justified, given the threats she has faced during her first 90 days in office.

“An unknown person was outside of my office window on the ledge looking into the office. ... We immediately alerted police, who came to find out that the emergency button in my office doesn’t even work,” Conyears-Ervin said.

“There was an incident when I was coming outside of City Hall, where I was accosted by an unknown woman . . . I was also out in the community and someone approached me with . . . very frivolous conversation . . . The person was continuing to come closer and closer to me.”

The mayor’s office issued a statement that said Lightfoot “stands by the security analysis conducted by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the subsequent termination of security detail for the Office of the Treasurer.”

Conyears-Ervin’s husband is Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus. He supported the failed mayoral campaign of County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

A former state representative, Conyears-Ervin presides over the city’s $9 billion investment portfolio. She also serves as an ex-officio member of boards overseeing four city employee pension funds.

Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin shakes hands with Mayor Lori Lightfoot following adjournment of their first Chicago City Council meeting.
Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin shakes hands with Mayor Lori Lightfoot in May, following adjournment of their first Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“There are absolutely no public events that I can attend without anyone referencing me as the ‘money lady,’ ‘the person holding the bag,’ [or] the ‘person writing the checks,’ “ Conyears-Ervin said.

During a break at a police pension fund meeting, the treasurer pointed to a “very contentious” recent case involving a police officer “known to have mental challenges” and “known to carry a handgun.”

“I am the only elected official that sits on that board with my known address that’s public. And I was part of the decision-making to deny him his pension,” she said.

“Security is not something that’s frivolous. This is very serious.”

In response to a Freedom of Information request, Conyears-Ervin released a series of emails, first disclosed by the Chicago Tribune, that shine a light on a bodyguard controversy between her and Lightfoot.

After Conyears-Ervin appealed the August decision, Lightfoot replied she saw “no basis for rejecting or overruling the CPD’s findings” that police protection for the treasurer was no longer justified at a cost of $116,000-per-officer, not including overtime.

“Aside from the cost, in this time of violence, we need every officer that we can get on the streets, fighting crime,” the mayor wrote.

Lightfoot took particular exception to the claim made by the treasurer’s chief of staff that the CPD’s threat assessment was “political.”

“Putting to one side the insulting nature of that claim, what would be ‘political’ is if I ignored the law enforcement assessment and made a decision untethered from the facts,” the mayor wrote.

“The last time a mayor did such a thing was for Ald. Ed Burke . . . I have no intention of operating like that and I would think you would not want to be in such infamous company.”

Three days later, Conyears-Ervin fired back, calling comparisons to Burke “inappropriate and insulting.” So was Lightfoot’s suggestion that the treasurer call 911 to report any threats to her public safety, Conyears-Ervin wrote.

“The people of Chicago went to the polls, and with their votes, demanded change, a cleansing of the Do-As-I-Say Boss Politics,” Conyears-Ervin wrote.

Lightfoot told the treasurer she was “moving on.”

To replace the police bodyguards she lost, Conyears-Ervin spent roughly $3,000 in August and September to hire a private security officer at taxpayer expense. One was former CPD officer Brian Thompson, who once led former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s detail.

She now plans to put a full-time security specialist on the treasurer’s payroll at an annual salary of $60,000.