Chicago mayor faces two investigations over campaign emails to teachers

The Chicago Board of Ethics is calling for a deeper investigation into emails sent by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s re-election campaign to public school teachers and staff at city universities soliciting student volunteers in exchange for academic credit.

Members of the Ethics Board voted unanimously Monday to refer the complaint against the mayor’s campaign to the city’s Inspector General and the Chicago Public Schools Inspector General. The district watchdog has already opened an investigation.

The dual inquiries come after Lightfoot’s deputy campaign manager emailed Chicago Public Schools teachers on their work email accounts seeking student volunteers for his re-election campaign in exchange for school credit. . The campaign also sent similar emails in the fall to City Colleges staff, prompting a warning to the community college system’s ethics department.

The emails surfaced in a WTTW story and quickly drew condemnation from elected officials, teachers and hopefuls in the city’s Feb. 28 mayoral election. Lightfoot is seeking a second term as mayor.

The vote to refer the complaint to the city’s Inspector General and the Chicago Public Schools Inspector General took place after a closed-door executive session. Now, each inspector general will decide whether the mayor’s campaign emails violated the city’s or school district’s codes of ethics.

The board received a complaint on January 12, alleging that a candidate’s campaign “violated the giveaway provisions of the Ordinance and prohibited political activity by sending emails asking government employees at their official government email addresses.” , according to a summary published Tuesday.

Before Monday’s meeting, the board’s monthly agenda did not include details of the case or the topic of the investigation. After the vote, Chairman William Conlon said that with most complaints, the board still doesn’t know if it’s fact or not, and therefore can’t decide if there really was an ethics violation.

“Factual investigations are conducted by the inspector general,” Conlon said. “Those investigations then form the factual basis for this board’s determination and action.”

After initially saying that soliciting student volunteers was “common practice,” the Lightfoot campaign said it would alert staff that “there must be a strong wall between the campaign and official activities.” The next day, Lightfoot said the staffer made a “mistake” but that he would not be fired, instead calling it a “teachable moment” for the young staffer.

The city’s Office of the Inspector General and the investigative arm of Chicago Public Schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Office of Inspector General Deborah Witzburg told the Sun-Times that the investigations were confidential and that they were limited to making public statements about their work. Still, she noted that, in her opinion, “abuse of official position for political gain has no place in Chicago.”

Without addressing the specific complaint, the Ethics Board has advised public officials, candidates for public office and their entities to remove their email lists from any government email address, Conlon said during Monday’s meeting.

“In the past, we have sent notices to public officials throughout the city and provided them with advice on matters we feel are important to understanding and complying with the ethics ordinance,” Conlon said.

The board also advises candidates and anyone affiliated with those candidates “that emails and other forms of solicitation may be considered coercive if directed at city employees and/or sister city agency employees,” Conlon added.

Lightfoot’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He previously said his campaign would cooperate with any investigation.

“There was zero, zero, zero coordination, coercion or anything else between the campaign and CPS on this issue,” Lightfoot said earlier this month.

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at [email protected].