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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a campaign stop

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a campaign stop with first lady Amy Eshleman, Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward, and Ald. Derrick Curtis, 18th Ward, in June.

Ashlee Rezin

CPS warned Lightfoot aide over emails seeking student volunteers before campaign defended recruitment effort

A senior Chicago Public Schools official had notified Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection campaign that soliciting student volunteers through their teachers was not permitted hours before the campaign publicly defended its recruitment effort as a “common practice,” email records show.

Lightfoot, who has since apologized and admitted the tactic was “clearly a mistake,” has faced heavy criticism for the misstep and is under scrutiny by the inspectors general for both the school district and the city. The Chicago Board of Ethics this week asked for full-blown investigations by the watchdogs before issuing a ruling on whether Lightfoot’s campaign violated local ethics rules.

The emails at the center of the inquiries were sent earlier this month by deputy campaign manager Megan Crane to select CPS teachers at their work email addresses seeking student volunteers in exchange for class credit. Mayoral challengers, the Chicago Teachers Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Chicago were among those who accused the mayor of crossing ethical lines by asking city employees to gather volunteers to support her political aims.

The Lightfoot campaign issued a series of amended statements in the hours after WTTW Channel 11 first reported the recruitment effort Jan. 11. The initial response defended the solicitation, calling the volunteer work a “common practice” that campaigns at all levels have used “for decades” to give “countless high school and college students the opportunity to learn more about the election process.” Soon after backlash mounted, the campaign said it would stop contacting teachers.

But email records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times through a public records request Thursday show CPS had already informed the campaign earlier the afternoon of Jan. 11 —before the campaign’s first statement — that recruitment of students for political work was not permitted on campus or by teachers or school staff.

“Just to reiterate our phone conversation, no recruitment for interns or [volunteers] can be done on campus or by staff/teachers. We also can not provide any classroom credit,” Chuck Swirsky, a senior adviser to CPS CEO Pedro Martinez, wrote in an email to Crane, addressing an email she had sent to a CPS teacher that was brought to the attention of district officials.

Swirsky added that any further questions could be directed to him or Jennifer Chan, the district’s ethics adviser.

The CPS ethics policy prohibits district employees from forwarding materials from political campaigns. The policy further prohibits school staffers from using their positions to engage in political activity or doing political work on school time.

The next day, Lightfoot held a news conference offering a rare apology. She said she knew nothing about the solicitation effort until the story came out, and she laid the blame on Crane — though she said the public embarrassment was punishment enough and nobody would be fired.

Lightfoot’s campaign on Thursday didn’t comment directly on Swirsky’s email.

“As the mayor has said, once she found out about the email recruitment on January 11th, she directed her staff to cease the efforts. Our campaign issued an updated press statement in order to clarify that we had taken her directive and halted the effort,” a statement said.

Swirsky’s email wasn’t the first time the Lightfoot campaign had been notified it was likely in violation of a city agency’s code of ethics. Crane had sent similar recruitment messages last year to City Colleges of Chicago faculty and heard back from administrators that those emails were purged from City Colleges accounts in accordance with the community college system’s ethics policy.

Even so, Lightfoot has not since explained why her campaign initially defended the email recruitment — or why her campaign continued the practice with CPS teachers after being shot down by City Colleges administrators.

“I’m not just some candidate. I’m the mayor and responsible for the schools. And this is the kind of outreach that never should have happened, whether through publicly available sources or not,” Lightfoot told reporters earlier this month.

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