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CPS inspector general looks at hiring of firm with Claypool ties

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool (left) with CPS general counsel Ronald Marmer in 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general has opened an investigation into the hiring of a law firm with ties to CPS chief executive officer Forrest Claypool and his general counsel.

Inspector General Nick Schuler said Monday his office started an investigation after the Chicago Sun-Times reported last month on the Chicago Board of Education’s deal with Jenner & Block LLP. The firm is in the midst of a years-long process of paying out $1 million in severance to Ron Marmer, CPS’ top attorney.

Schuler declined to comment further.

Acting in closed session on July 27, the school board voted to pay as much as $250,000 to Jenner & Block, which spent months preparing a never-filed lawsuit against the state seeking increased funding.

The Sun-Times reported Marmer left the law firm in 2013 but has continued to receive yearly payments of $200,000, which are to end in 2018.

Under CPS’ code of ethics, school officials can’t have any “contract management authority” over any 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 school system employee.

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

A CPS spokeswoman declined to comment Monday.

The lawsuit Jenner & Block was preparing didn’t get filed because legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner agreed on a stopgap budget deal on June 30 that’s to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding to CPS.

Marmer and Claypool once worked together 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 1997 until 2013.

Marmer — who had a solo law practice after leaving Jenner & Block and started his $185,000-a-year job at CPS on Nov. 2, 2015 — has made $24,000 in campaign contributions to Claypool’s bids for elected office since 2003. That includes $10,000 toward Claypool’s unsuccessful run for Cook County assessor in 2010. Marmer also gave $5,000 to Rahm Emanuel’s first campaign for mayor in 2011.

Jenner & Block began working for CPS on March 3, though the contract with the firm that Claypool’s administration released last month was dated June 20.

Through June 30, the firm had billed the school system for more than $182,000.

CPS had refused to release any of the firm’s invoices for more than two months after the Sun-Times filed a public records request seeking them in May.

The Jenner & Block lawyer who signed the deal with CPS was Randall Mehrberg, who worked for the Chicago Park District in the 1990s when Claypool was parks chief under then-Mayor Richard M. Daley. State election board records show Mehrberg contributed a total of $30,500 to Claypool’s campaigns and $10,000 to Emanuel.