The Chicago Board of Ethics on Monday asked inspectors general for the city and Chicago Public Schools to investigate Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s re-election campaign to determine if the campaign violated the city’s ethics ordinance by recruiting student volunteers at CPS and City Colleges in exchange for class credit.
The vote came after a closed-door executive session. As always, neither the board’s agenda nor the summary of cases identified the subject of the investigation.
But the request for a full-blown investigation by Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg and her CPS counterpart, Will Fletcher, makes clear the subject is the mayor’s reelection campaign, Lightfoot for Chicago.
The city’s ethics ordinance prohibits elected officials from using city time, resources and information to mix politics with official business.
“Investigations conducted by the Office of Inspector General are confidential. There are only very limited circumstances under which the municipal code permits us to make any public statement about our investigative work. That said, in my view, the abuse of an official position for political gain has no place in Chicago. Not anymore,” Witzburg told the Sun-Times.
“If people are aware of any of those abuses — and most particularly if city employees are seeing those abuses in their workplaces — they should continue to call us. I appreciate today’s referral by the board.”
Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon said the board has advised candidates for city offices and “all of those affiliated with the candidate in any way — to immediately and thoroughly scrub their email lists and remove any governmental email addresses.”
“The board also advises candidates and those associated with those candidates that emails and other forms of solicitation may be considered coercive if directed to city employees and those employed by sister city agencies,” Conlon said.
“As always, the board is available to offer confidential advice in advance of actions taken.”
Last week, Lightfoot stood before a phalanx of television cameras to offer a rare public apology.
She didn’t have much choice.
The email sent by deputy campaign manager Megan Crane to Chicago Public School teachers offered their students class credit if they agreed to volunteer for the mayor’s re-election campaign.
Now, it threatens to further undermine the reformer image that catapulted Lightfoot into office.
The solicitation was “clearly a mistake” by a single campaign staffer, Lightfoot said, and won’t happen again.
The mayor claims she knew nothing about the student recruitment effort until her campaign was questioned by WTTW Channel 11, which broke the story, and she immediately admonished her deputy campaign manager for crossing an ethical line.
Lightfoot did not explain why her campaign initially defended the email recruitment — or why her campaign solicited CPS teachers after a similar solicitation to City Colleges teachers months earlier had been 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 last week.
“There must be an impenetrable wall — not just a line, but a wall — between anything that happens on the political side and anything that happens on the official side, the government side. That wall can never be breached,” she said.
Lightfoot said the “person who did this understands the magnitude of the issue, and frankly, is mortified that this happened and that she’s brought attention to herself and the campaign, and notably, to me, in this way.”
But the mayor said the public embarrassment suffered by her deputy campaign manager is enough and she would not yield to pressure to fire Crane, who Lightfoot said had “no nefarious intent.”
“The easy political thing to do would be to fire her, throw her body to the hungry hordes. But I don’t think that’s the right thing to do in this instance,” the mayor said. “I have a lot of young people that work for me. … This is an important teachable moment for them.”
Lightfoot promised to fully cooperate with any investigation triggered by the solicitation. She stressed there was “zero, zero, zero coordination, coercion or anything else between the campaign and CPS on this issue” and that “no city resources” were used.
“I want that to be abundantly clear,” she said.
The CPS ethics policy prohibits district employees from forwarding or passing along 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.
City Colleges of Chicago spokeswoman Katheryn Hayes said staff who received the campaign emails last August notified the City Colleges Ethics Department. The administration purged the emails from City Colleges accounts and notified the Lightfoot campaign of its ethics policy. ”In accordance with City Colleges’ ethics policy, City Colleges does not coordinate with political campaigns,” Hayes said in a statement.
Crane’s email to select CPS teachers at their work email addresses outraged the Chicago Teachers Union and was universally condemned by Lightfoot’s eight challengers.