CPS’ Claypool ‘repeatedly lied’ to cover up ethics breach, report says

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool. | Sun-Times files

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s schools chief “repeatedly lied” to investigators and engaged in a “full-blown cover-up” of behavior that he and the top attorney for Chicago Public Schools engaged in over the past 20 months, the CPS inspector general says in a report released Thursday.

In a blistering, 103-page document he sent Tuesday to the Chicago Board of Education, Inspector General Nicholas Schuler said he was “left with no recourse but to conclude” that the board should fire CPS CEO Forrest Claypool.

“Claypool greatly compounded the severity of his misconduct when he repeatedly lied to the [inspector general’s office] through two separate interviews,” Schuler wrote.

But Emanuel rushed to Claypool’s defense after the release of the report. And Frank Clark, the president of the school board — whose members were chosen by Emanuel — also has praised Claypool since getting the report.

Nicholas J. Schuler, inspector general for the Chicago Public Schools. | Sun-Times file photo

In his final report on the long-running probe, Schuler said he began investigating last year, prompted by a Chicago Sun-Times article that “raised the question of whether” CPS general counsel Ronald Marmer — a longtime friend of Claypool — had violated the schools’ ethics code.

The Sun-Times first reported that Marmer’s old firm, Jenner & Block, was still paying him a $1 million severance in five annual installments when the Board of Ed hired the firm to pursue a lawsuit seeking more money from the state. That was fine, Claypool told the newspaper at the time, because he and Clark hired the firm.

But the ethics rules also prohibit CPS employees from supervising the work of contractors with whom they have a business relationship. Schuler said Claypool and Marmer ignored the advice of six lawyers who said Marmer would violate the ethics code and instead “searched for an exonerating opinion.”

They got a seventh, more favorable legal opinion from J. Timothy Eaton — a Claypool campaign contributor whom Claypool met in college. Relying on Eaton’s “incorrect” opinion, Schuler said, was “manifestly deceptive and disingenuous.”

Schuler also said that Claypool “violated his fiduciary duty under the Code of Ethics to act in good faith” with the school board.

MORE: Timeline of inspector general’s investigation into Forrest Claypool

“Claypool failed to adequately inform the board about the six attorney opinions that were in lock-step agreement that Marmer could not have supervisory authority over work performed by Jenner & Block,” Schuler wrote.

Before the school board approved hiring the firm last year, Schuler said, the schools CEO “apparently misled” Board of Ed President Frank Clark into thinking Marmer wasn’t deeply involved in Jenner & Block’s work for the schools. Emails obtained last year by the Sun-Times showed that Marmer had begun overseeing the firm’s work for CPS months earlier, with Claypool’s knowledge.

Still, Claypool only “pushed the matter beyond all bounds” when Schuler interviewed him twice recently, the report said. The inspector general said Claypool lied again and again when asked if he requested a change in the invoices submitted by one of two outside attorneys who were consulted and who agreed with four in-house attorneys that Marmer couldn’t supervise Jenner & Block.

At Claypool’s request, the revised version of the invoice concealed that the lawyer — CPS’ labor counsel James Franczek — had given an opinion on Marmer’s actions. The new invoices from Franczek were labeled “For Forrest Claypool’s Eyes Only” in bold letters, the report said.

“Claypool took improper steps to alter relevant records with the intent of obscuring that work that Franczek had done on the matter,” Schuler wrote.

In a statement Thursday, Claypool said he had made “mistakes.” But the former head of Chicago’s parks and transit said he still had a “strong disagreement” with Schuler over the ethics policy.

Claypool even appeared to place blame for his actions in the matter on the “high pressure” of dealing with CPS’ financial problems and negotiating with the teachers union, which long has called for him to resign.

“I have fully acknowledged my mistakes in judgment and apologized,” Claypool said. “But I did not regret the passion for justice that led to that mistake.”

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool and CPS General Counsel Ronald L. Marmer at the CPS Board meeting, Wednesday, December 6th, 2017. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Schuler, though, said Claypool had engaged in a long-running pattern of obstructing his investigation and also cited the students’ interests in calling for Claypool’s firing.

“What kind of signal would it send to CPS employees, parents and children if the CEO was allowed to change records as part of a cover-up and keep his job?” Schuler wrote.

Last month, Claypool took the highly unusual tack of publicizing a letter to Schuler saying he made misstatements to the inspector.

That move, Schuler said, “was designed to taint the board’s reception” of his then-pending report by “falsely portraying lies on two separate occasions as mere lapses of memory.”

Schuler said that Claypool was told not to speak about the ongoing probe yet “improperly” sent an email to Marmer to give him a “heads up” before sending the letter to investigators and the press.

“Sadly,” Schuler wrote, “the [inspector general] is left with no recourse but to conclude that this is a termination case for Claypool.”

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