In an unusually public and blunt airing of a grievance, the Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general blasted CPS officials for impeding his investigation into “possible ethics violations” by the school system’s top lawyer.

Inspector General Nicholas Schuler began the investigation last summer, after the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Chicago Board of Education had hired a law firm where schools CEO Forrest Claypool and his general counsel, Ronald Marmer, formerly worked.

Appearing at Wednesday’s school board meeting, Schuler said that CPS officials have refused his requests for information, citing attorney-client privilege.

“The board’s assertion of the privilege is preventing my office from accessing relevant documents and interviewing attorneys that likely have information relevant to the investigation,” Schuler said. “Unless the OIG is granted the access it needs, a critical undermining of the public trust will result.”

Schuler said he believes his office has the right to the information it’s been denied by the Claypool administration.

“The assertion of the attorney-client privilege by the board against the OIG is not only contrary to the OIG’s express right in the Illinois school code to have, and I quote, ‘access to all information and personnel necessary to perform the duties of the office,’ but it’s also contrary to past board practice,” Schuler said.

Frank Clark, the Board of Ed president, responded by suggesting to Schuler that the discussion be continued behind closed doors.

Schuler agreed, noting that his office’s investigation is ongoing. But Schuler said he was first “making these remarks in public because this is an area of significant public concern, and I believe the public should know why the investigation is stalled.”

After a closed session meeting of about half an hour, Schuler would only say that the matter remained unresolved.

Claypool, running out of CPS after that meeting, wouldn’t say whether privilege would be waived, saying, “That’s a board issue.”

Later Wednesday, Claypool issued a statement downplaying the dispute and defending Marmer.

“This is simply a disagreement among lawyers as to the meaning of a board policy, but there is no question that the general counsel did not benefit financially from pursuing a civil rights lawsuit for Chicago’s children, nor did he select the firm that wrote the lawsuit,” Claypool said. “When it comes to the civil rights of Chicago’s students, it’s ludicrous to think that we wouldn’t rely on the insight and guidance of Ron Marmer, one of the country’s top litigators.”

While Claypool had only a brief tenure at Jenner & Block LLP about 35 years ago, Marmer is in the midst of receiving a $1 million severance package from the firm, which he left in 2013. His yearly payments of $200,000 are to end in 2018.

On July 27, acting in closed session, the Board of Education voted to pay as much as $250,000 to Jenner & Block for preparing a never-filed lawsuit against the state for increased funding.

Under CPS’ code of ethics, school officials can’t supervise the work of a contractor “with whom the employee has a business relationship” — defined as a transaction worth at least $2,500 to the employee in a calendar year.

When first asked about the deal with Jenner & Block, Claypool said Marmer had “recused himself” from being involved.

But in October the Sun-Times reported that Marmer oversaw the work of Jenner & Block, citing internal emails showing Marmer reviewed draft legal complaints sent to him from his former firm and sent revisions to Jenner & Block’s lawyers.

Claypool aides later made public a legal opinion from another outside firm, which concluded that Marmer did nothing wrong. That opinion was written for CPS by J. Timothy Eaton of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP. Like Marmer, Eaton has been a contributor to Claypool’s political campaigns.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool (left) with CPS general counsel Ronald Marmer at a Chicago Board of Education meeting in January. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool (left) with CPS general counsel Ronald Marmer at a Chicago Board of Education meeting in January. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

CPS has declined to release communications from earlier this year between Marmer and the school system’s in-house ethics adviser, Andra Gomberg.

On Wednesday, Schuler did not say which lawyers CPS was keeping his office from interviewing.

After plans to file the lawsuit against the state were dropped, Jenner & Block was paid at CPS’ standard rate for outside counsel — $295 an hour, for a total of more than $182,000. An earlier, original version of the deal would have paid Jenner & Block at its normal, much steeper rates in the event that CPS sued the state and succeeded in getting increased funding from Springfield.

Marmer, who worked for Jenner & Block for 30 years, started as CPS’ general counsel in October 2015. Claypool wanted him, and the school board agreed, with two board members voting against the hire.

Claypool got his first job out of law school at Jenner & Block in 1982, according to state records. Marmer was working there at the time, and he since has contributed $24,000 to Claypool’s campaigns, including his unsuccessful run for Cook County assessor in 2010.

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