Mayor Rahm Emanuel maintains “100 percent” confidence Friday in his handpicked Chicago Public Schools chief after the Chicago Sun-Times reported Thursday that the schools inspector general believes the CPS CEO was part of an “apparent whitewash” of conduct by the district’s top lawyer.
But the Chicago Teachers Union called on the mayor and his appointed Board of Education to fire schools chief Forrest Claypool and general counsel Ronald Marmer “for putting the personal gain of clouted political players ahead of the most basic principles of ethics.”
Claypool on Friday stood by his longtime associate and former campaign contributor. He praised Marmer’s “excellent strategic vision” in a lawsuit over state funding that Marmer’s former law firm handled for CPS.
IG Nicholas Schuler privately informed school board members in June that Marmer violated the district’s code of ethics by supervising work done by Jenner & Block while the firm continued to pay him a seven-figure severance.
In his confidential report, recently reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times, Schuler wrote that six attorneys Claypool and officials consulted about potential violations — four employed by CPS and two from outside firms — agreed that Marmer broke ethics rules.
A seventh opinion, sought after the others and written by J. Timothy Eaton, a contributor to Claypool’s past political campaigns, found no violation, Schuler told board members.
“The clear inference is that Claypool had to shop through six lawyers until he found a seventh one who would publicly clear Marmer,” Schuler wrote to school board.
Emanuel was asked Friday morning if he still had full confidence in Claypool, his longtime friend who was once his chief of staff.
“Yeah. Yeah. 100 percent,” the mayor said as he walked out of the event.
Karen Lewis, president of the teachers union that recently took a symbolic vote of no confidence on Claypool, called Friday for his ouster and Marmer’s, too.
“We should not be surprised by this most recent ethics breach by Claypool and his CPS general counsel, Ronald Marmer,” she said in a statement. “These are not people who care about our public schools or the public trust.”
Lewis blamed Emanuel as an “enabler of this culture of political cronyism,” urging him to terminate Claypool and Marmer.
Claypool defended the job he’s done at CPS since July 2015, when Emanuel promoted him from mayoral chief of staff to replace the disgraced CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, now imprisoned for her role in a contract kickback scheme.
Claypool credited work by Jenner & Block and Marmer with helping to bridge CPS’ budget gap.
“Our civil rights lawsuit galvanized the public around the fight for equal funding and ultimately helped win $450 million in new funding for Chicago schools, and I am grateful to Jenner & Block for donating more than $1.25 million in legal services to defend the civil rights of Chicago school children, and to Ron Marmer for his excellent strategic vision in this historic case,” Claypool said in a statement.
CPS filed its suit against the state in February 2016. It’s still pending, though last month state lawmakers granted more funding to CPS and other districts.
Jenner & Block offered its legal services for free once the lawsuit was actually filed. But under its original agreement with CPS, the firm was to be paid at its standard rates if the lawsuit won more money for the district.
That contingency clause was later deleted from the deal, and the firm was paid CPS’ standard rate for outside counsel of $295 an hour, for a total of about $182,000.
CPS’ ethics code prevents anyone with a “business relationship” with a company – defined as making $2,500 or more in a year —from supervising the company’s work for the schools.
When Marmer left Jenner & Block in 2013, he was owed $1 million in severance to be paid in annual installments of $200,000 through 2018. Emails obtained last year by the Sun-Times show he closely supervised Jenner & Block’s work for the district and reported on that to Claypool.
The June report asked the school board to get rid of Eaton’s firm and make Eaton and the other attorneys available for questioning by the IG. A month later, CPS hired the law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP at $500 an hour to represent its members in the investigation.
Schuler made no final recommendations regarding Marmer, who makes $185,000 a year. He would say Thursday only that his investigation “is now progressing.”
Violations of the ethics code carry punishments as severe as suspension or termination.