The inspector general for Chicago Public Schools on Thursday launched an investigation into Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s attempt to recruit CPS students to volunteer for her reelection campaign in exchange for class credit.
Lightfoot called a news conference for 3 p.m. Thursday to address the burgeoning controversy amid word that a similar request was made to teachers and students at City Colleges of Chicago, whose board is appointed by the mayor, as well as the CPS board.
The Lightfoot campaign said the now-rescinded solicitation to CPS students used teachers’ email addresses that were “publicly available.”
CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher said he is attempting to determine whether the campaign’s request violated any district policies.
“CPS OIG has opened an investigation into this matter and we are currently gathering information to determine which, if any, policies have been violated,” Fletcher said in a one-sentence statement.
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 of Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg was a bit more cautious — even though her mentor and predecessor Joe Ferguson has branded the Lightfoot campaign’s solicitation as “deeply, deeply problematic.”
Witzburg said she has “been in touch” with Fletcher and is in the information-gathering stage that may well be a prelude to a full-blown investigation.
“One of the things to be considered here is, if something went wrong, whether that issue was cured by calling it off,” Witzburg told the Chicago Sun-Times. “If there is any appearance that people are using their public position for political advantage, that would be a concern, and I don’t know yet whether that has happened here.”
Earlier this week, Lightfoot’s deputy campaign manager Megan Crane sent an email to select CPS teachers at their work email addresses that outraged the Chicago Teachers Union and was universally condemned by Lightfoot’s eight challengers.
It asked teachers to “please share this opportunity with your students,” including details on volunteer roles and an application form. Volunteers would be expected to work 12 hours per week.
“Students are eligible to earn class credit through our volunteer program,” Crane wrote.
“No prior campaign experience is required, nor is a major or minor in political science. We’re simply looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people eager to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring.”
The role, called an “externship,” was advertised as an opportunity for students to gain experience in campaign politics and “learn the field, finance and communications aspect of a campaign” by doing “voter contact, attending events, and more.”
Lightfoot’s campaign initially defended what it called 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.”
But after a barrage of criticism from mayoral challengers, the Lightfoot campaign rescinded the offer and vowed to “cease contact” with CPS employees “out of an abundance of caution.”
“All [Lightfoot campaign] staff have been reminded about the solid wall that must exist between campaign and official activities and that contacts with any city of Chicago or other sister agency employees, including CPS employees, even through publicly available sources, is off limits. Period,” the campaign said.
Mayoral challenger Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, demanded a joint investigation by Fletcher and Witzburg and has questions he wants answered:
• Whether Lightfoot was “aware that her campaign was pressuring teachers and students to support her campaign using their CPS email addresses.”
• If the mayor was not aware, will she take disciplinary action against campaign staffers?
• How did the mayor’s reelection campaign obtain the CPS teacher email list?
• Was there an agreement between the Lightfoot campaign and CPS to offer students class credit, and if so, who at CPS authorized it?
• If there was no agreement, did the Lightfoot campaign “lie to students and teachers by claiming there would be” a chance to earn class credit?
“Chicago voters deserve to hear answers to these questions, and more directly, from Mayor Lightfoot herself right now,” Vallas said in a news release.
Retired attorney William Conlon, the Lightfoot appointee now chairing the Chicago Board of Ethics, put the campaign email on the board’s Jan. 23 agenda.
Asked whether he believes the Lightfoot campaign violated the city’s ethics ordinance, Conlon said, “I’m not gonna go there. We’re gonna talk about it on the 23rd, and we’ll see what the rest of the board thinks about it.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Chicago on Thursday branded the solicitation “inappropriately coercive” and a “First Amendment concern” that might have violated federal law.
“Because the Mayor has the ultimate authority over the Chicago schools, teachers may feel coercion in this ask … or fear negative consequence for lack of participation,” ACLU Executive Director Colleen K. Connell said in a news release.
Ald. Matt Martin (47th), acting chair of the City Council’s Ethics Committee, has already called his own Jan. 23 meeting on other matters. Martin said he has “more due diligence” to do before deciding “whether and when it would be appropriate for the committee to look into this issue further.”
“With something like a sister agency, that obviously presents real complications in terms of what City Council and the ethics committee can do and should do. Same thing would happen with regard to the Park District and CTA,” Martin said.
The ethics committee chairmanship has been vacant since the resignation last summer of Ald. Michele Smith (43rd).
Martin has a stalled resolution that calls for elevating him to the permanent job, but Lightfoot has argued that the power to appoint committee chairs rests with the mayor.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) harkened back to Lightfoot’s 2019 swearing-in ceremony at Wintrust Arena.
“I remember when a certain mayor stood on a stage at her inauguration, turned around, pointed her finger at the City Council and stated that we are the `problem,’ “ Reilly tweeted Thursday.
“If this isn’t a crime, it’s certainly unethical,” he said.