Your NPR news source
Lori Lightfoot

The Ethics Board dismissed a complaint that former mayor Lori Lightfoot violated portions of the ethics ordinance after the Office of the Inspector General recommended doing so.

Manuel Martinez

Ethics Board dismisses complaint that Lightfoot violated rules for campaign emails to city workers

The Chicago Board of Ethics found there was insufficient evidence Monday that former Mayor Lori Lightfoot violated the city’s ethics ordinance when her political campaign sent emails soliciting city employees to support her mayoral reelection bid.

The board voted during its Monday meeting to unanimously dismiss the complaint. Its decision comes nearly six months after the board initially unanimously voted to find there was probable cause that Lightfoot violated portions of the ethics ordinance after the Office of the Inspector General recommended doing so.

The case carried on for months, with Lightfoot given an opportunity to dispute the board’s findings.

Lightfoot was not named as the subject of the complaint, but Michael Dorf, an attorney for Lightfoot, applauded the ruling Monday, saying in a statement there was “abundant evidence that neither Mayor Lightfoot nor anyone at her campaign intentionally targeted government email addresses for fundraising appeals.”

Amid a fierce reelection campaign to win a second term, it was revealed in January by WTTW News that Lightfoot’s campaign sent Chicago Public Schools teachers emails to recruit student volunteers. WBEZ and the Sun-Times later reported that what Lightfoot called a “bad mistake” by one young staffer had included multiple campaign staffers sending more than 9,900 emails to CPS and City Colleges staff ranging from generic fundraising appeals to invitations to private town halls and requests for help gathering petitions.

The Chicago Tribune later reported Lightfoot was warned back in March 2022 by Witzburg’s office to “immediately cease sending electioneering communications to city of Chicago employees at their city email addresses and purge such email addresses from campaign email lists.”

But Lightfoot’s attorney says the mayor was never personally involved in the campaign emails.

“The Lightfoot campaign conducted thorough due diligence to ensure that those who subscribed to fundraising solicitations did not use government email addresses,” Dorf said in the statement. “Mayor Lightfoot, like most major candidates involved in large scale campaigns, was never involved in personally monitoring email list subscribers, or in any other facet of email fundraising. By rejecting the investigation and findings of the Inspector General, the Board has avoided setting a dangerous precedent.”

The Office of the Inspector General’s July quarterly report, which did not name Lightfoot, concluded that the official violated their fiduciary duty, misused city property, and inappropriately solicited political contributions from city employees. The report summarized its investigation that found that the political campaign emails, “demonstrated that the official misused their City title in pursuit of a political purpose, as well as misused the authority of their office and City email addresses for a political purpose.”

“The political campaign emails also demonstrated that the official improperly solicited political donations from City employees, over whom the official had supervisory authority,” the July report read.

William Conlon, chair of the Board of Ethics, said during Monday’s meeting a memorandum on the case will recommend to the City Council and Mayor Brandon Johnson that political campaign and fundraising committees – not just city officials, employees and candidates for city office – be placed under the jurisdiction of the Board of Ethics and the Office of the Inspector General.

It was a point echoed in an opinion issued Tuesday afternoon by the Board of Ethics, which in keeping with its rules on confidentiality did not name Lightfoot personally.

Based on the evidence presented by both Witzburg’s office and Lightfoot’s rebuttal, the board determined the evidence did not show that Lightfoot herself was involved in the creation, dissemination or approval of the emails and that “responsibility rests with the fundraising committee and its officers, directors, and staff,” the three-member opinion read.

The Office of the Inspector General’s July quarterly report, which did not name Lightfoot, concluded that the official violated their fiduciary duty, misused city property, and inappropriately solicited political contributions from city employees. The report summarized its investigation that found that the political campaign emails, “demonstrated that the official misused their City title in pursuit of a political purpose, as well as misused the authority of their office and City email addresses for a political purpose.”

“The political campaign emails also demonstrated that the official improperly solicited political donations from City employees, over whom the official had supervisory authority,” the July report read.

William Conlon, chair of the Board of Ethics, said during Monday’s meeting a memorandum on the case will recommend to the City Council and Mayor Brandon Johnson that political campaign and fundraising committees – not just city officials, employees and candidates for city office – be placed under the jurisdiction of the Board of Ethics and the Office of the Inspector General.

“Regrettably, the relevant sections of the Ordinance do not allow for the Board to find a political fundraising committee liable for violations of these sections of the Ordinance,” the three-member opinion signed by Conlon, and board members David Daskal and Barbara McDonald read, later adding: “Hence, in effect, there is no way for the Board to hold the responsible party here – the fundraising committee – accountable under current law.”

Tuesday’s opinion also recommended that political fundraising committees be added to the purview of the ethics ordinance “so that there is accountability in the future for this type of conduct.”

Ethics board member Ryan Cortazar issued a separate opinion arguing that simply adding political fundraising committees may not result in a different outcome. Cortazar noted that the political committee attempted to stop mass emails from being sent to city email addresses, and that its failure to do so “may be negligent – even reckless – but it is not knowing misconduct or willful blindness.”

“The investigation in this case failed to establish that the respondent or the committee acted intentionally, knowingly or with willful blindness when sending the blast emails,” Cortazar wrote.

Cortazar added that he still felt amending the ethics ordinance would provide “prudent regulation of these committees” and suggested the City Council consider to what extent limits should be imposed on soliciting sister agency employees as well.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon in response to the board’s opinion, Witzburg vowed that her office would continue to enforce the city’s ethics rules.

“The Chicago Way wasn’t built in a day, and we will not undo Chicago’s culture of corruption overnight,” Witzburg said. “We will continue to pursue aggressive enforcement of the City’s ethics rules until there is a shared understanding that those in positions of public trust owe Chicagoans better.”

Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago government and politics for WBEZ.

The Latest
Democrats had planned daily press conferences to highlight “the grave danger that Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans pose to our democracy, our rights and our livelihoods.” But with images of the shooting still fresh in the voters’ minds, they’re opting to let President Biden lead their response.
Donald Trump’s defiant response to the shooting has provided “a shot of adrenaline in our arm” for his already fervent followers, Illinois delegate Aaron Del Mar said as the GOP gets ready to kick off the Republican National Convention on Monday.
Three of Chicago’s busiest hospitals are a short walk from the DNC, prompting preparations for protests or catastrophic disasters.
What we know so far about the suspected shooter, 20-year-old Thomas Matthew Crooks of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. The attack could alter the tenor and security posture at the Republican National Convention, which will begin Monday in Milwaukee.
Some of Biden’s youngest advocates in Illinois share what concerns them about another Trump presidency, and why they’re sticking with Biden.