In a highly unusual move, Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool publicly apologized Friday afternoon for what he said was a “mistake” he made when CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler interviewed him recently in an ongoing probe of an alleged ethics-code violation by Claypool’s top attorney.
Schuler has said Claypool was involved in “an apparent whitewash” of the violation, seeking a seventh, favorable legal opinion from a political crony after six others lawyers had told CPS that its top attorney, Ronald Marmer, was breaking a CPS ethics rule.
But in a letter to Schuler that CPS released Friday afternoon, Claypool continued to deny that Marmer violated the ethics code by overseeing his former employer’s legal work for the schools, even as Marmer was still receiving a $1 million severance from the Jenner & Block LLP firm.
In the letter, Claypool acknowledged he had asked for changes to a bill submitted by one of two outside lawyers who found that Marmer violated the ethics code. And Claypool suggested Schuler caught him “cutting corners” about the bills when the I.G. personally questioned the CEO.
“As I have told you, I did not recall asking for changes to make the description of services on one of those bills less specific,” Claypool wrote. “However differently I recalled my past conversation, the documents you shared with me this week make it clear I did do that. I apologize for that mistake. Cutting corners, even in pursuit of the rescue of this institution, simply is not excusable. I was wrong, plain and simple.”
A CPS spokeswoman added that Claypool asked an outside lawyer “to reword the initial description of services, which involved the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘Marmer.’ The invoice was reworded to say the work concerned a personnel matter.”
The spokeswoman said James Franczek submitted the bill Claypool wanted reworded. Franczek, who has long negotiated CPS’ labor contracts, and former top CPS lawyer Pat Rocks agreed with four staff lawyers, who advised against Marmer’s involvement in the suit.
The lawyer who gave the sole opinion favoring Marmer was J. Timothy Eaton, a contributor to Claypool’s political campaigns who charged CPS $1,475.
“I had already informally asked two lawyers on contract with CPS about this issue,” Claypool wrote to Schuler. “I was disturbed when they then billed for their advice, because I had not asked for a formal opinion and did not expect to be charged for one. And, to be candid, I didn’t agree with their advice and didn’t want it to undercut public confidence in our lawsuit, or create a distraction to the civil rights violations of Chicago’s students.”
Franczek did not return calls Friday.
The bulk of Claypool’s letter defended Marmer and justified the school district’s decision to hire Jenner & Block to pursue a civil-rights lawsuit for greater state funding for CPS.
Schuler declined to comment Friday.
Claypool’s letter to Schuler was the latest in a series of twists in a 16-month saga. The I.G.’s probe was prompted by Chicago Sun-Times’ articles last year about Marmer’s Jenner & Block severance and the firm’s work for CPS.
Last December, Schuler appeared before the Chicago Board of Education to complain that CPS leaders were stonewalling the investigation.
Then, in June, Schuler told the Board of Education in a confidential report that his internal watchdog’s office was looking into “what appears to be an attempt by Claypool, and possibly others, to paper over the opinions of the six attorneys” who believed Marmer had violated the ethics code.
The code states that CPS officials cannot supervise work done by schools’ contractors with whom they have a business relationship worth more than $2,500 in the same year. Public records show Jenner & Block is paying Marmer — who left the firm in 2013 and joined CPS in 2015 —$200,000 a year in five annual installments.
The Sun-Times unearthed emails last year showing Marmer personally supervised Jenner & Block’s work for the district, with Claypool’s support.
After the June report to the school board, CPS leaders at last relented and agreed to cooperate with Schuler. The Sun-Times reported last month that Schuler interviewed Claypool in the chief executive’s office at CPS headquarters.
The Chicago Teachers Union reiterated its calls Friday for Claypool to resign over the issue.
“He had to go to seven different law firms to get the opinion that he wants to, on the taxpayer dime, and he went back and falsified the bills to cover his tracks,” CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said.
Sharkey blasted Claypool for the “holier-than-thou” tone of the letter.
“He’s so sanctimonious he believes if he can come up with some justification, he can do whatever he wants,” Sharkey said.