As Thanksgiving bombshells go, Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool’s letter of apology regarding his role in “invoicegate” isn’t anywhere near as explosive as the release of the Laquan McDonald video.
If you recall, it was on the eve of Thanksgiving in 2015 that Mayor Emanuel released the video that blew away what had until then been the official version of what happened when police gunned down 17-year-old McDonald.
A judge had ordered the video’s release, but no doubt the mayor was hoping that most of the public would be too distracted by the holidays to pay attention. Clearly that didn’t work, as protesters spent the next several weeks essentially accusing the mayor of concealing evidence of murder. “Sixteen shots and a cover-up” was the constant refrain.
Claypool’s letter is more difficult to comprehend, because it came virtually out of nowhere. So allow me to provide some context that may help you understand what’s going on.
In 2016, Claypool, Emanuel, and Ronald Marmer, the chief lawyer for CPS, decided to sue the state on the grounds that its funding formula discriminated against low-income black and Latino kids in Chicago.
There are dozens and dozens of law firms in Chicago. But Claypool decided only one was up to handling the case: Jenner & Block LLC.
Marmer used to work for Jenner—in fact, the firm’s paying him a million dollars in severance pay.
Thus, hiring Jenner raised a question: Is it ethically sound for Marmer to supervise the legal work of a firm that’s still paying him?
The CPS code is pretty clear on this matter. It says employees are prevented from having “contract management authority” over an outside vendor “with whom the employee has a business relationship.” The code defines a business relationship as one involving $2,500 a year or more. Marmer’s getting his severance package in $200,000 installments.
Claypool seemingly was still determined to hire Jenner & Block. So he went looking for someone who could help him out.
He subsequently went through six lawyers before he found one who told him what he wanted to hear. Wanna hire Jenner? Go ahead, knock yourself out—though I’m sure lawyer number seven dressed it up in some nicer legal language than that.
That lawyer was J. Timothy Eaton, a former campaign contributor to Claypool, who charged CPS $1,475 for his winning opinion on the Jenner issue. (Here I must give a shout-out to intrepid Sun-Times reporters Lauren FitzPatrick and Dan Mihalopoulos, who’ve uncovered these facts in a series of articles over the last few months.)
But Eaton wasn’t the only lawyer who billed CPS for advice on the ethics of hiring Jenner. James Franczek, who represents CPS in its union negotiations, also submitted an invoice for services rendered on “ethics” and “Marmer.” (CPS hasn’t released how much Franczek charged.)
Last year the matter caught the attention of CPS inspector general Nicholas Schuler, who’s in charge of ferreting out potential ethics violations—like, oh, maybe Marmer overseeing Jenner & Block’s work on a lawsuit.
It’s been a contentious investigation. Last December, Schuler publicly accused CPS officials of stonewalling his efforts. In late October, the two sat down to discuss the matter. Schuler asked Claypool if he’d changed the description of Franzcek’s invoice for services rendered.
Claypool said he hadn’t. So Schuler showed him evidence that the language had been changed: the words “ethics” and “Marmer” had been replaced with “personnel matter.” The smoking gun, to use one of my favorite Watergate phrases.
And so last Friday, Claypool sent a letter to Schuler, writing: “In reviewing our discussions, and my own recollections, it is clear to me that in one respect I have fallen short.”
Claypool goes on to explain that he “had already informally asked two lawyers on contract with CPS about this issue. I was disturbed when they billed for their advice, because I had not asked for a formal opinion and did not expect to be charged for one. And, to be candid, I didn’t agree with their advice.”
He continues: “As I have told you, I did not recall asking for changes to make the description of services on one of those bills less specific. However differently I recalled my past conversation, the documents you shared with me this week make it clear I did do that. I apologize for that mistake. Cutting corners, even in pursuit of the rescue of this institution, simply is not excusable.”
OK, let’s unpack this sucker. First, how does anyone forget asking for changes in an invoice, particularly changes that obscure the nature of the invoice by making its language “less specific”? Second, if Claypool thinks a lawyer who represents CPS isn’t going to charge for his opinion on a CPS matter, he doesn’t know much about lawyers despite being one. Third, if Claypool expects to pay only for legal advice he wants to hear, he might as well hire himself—and you know what Lincoln says about that. (“He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”)
Finally, changing an invoice isn’t “cutting corners.” It’s potentially falsifying public records.
Claypool sent his letter to reporters on the same day he sent it to Schuler, who’s so far declined to comment on the matter. It arrived out of the blue—most reporters didn’t know Schuler had questioned Claypool, much less revealed evidence that the invoice had been changed.
By confessing to the deed before Schuler publicly accused him of it, Claypool stole Schuler’s thunder. Now when Schuler eventually releases his full report, Claypool and his aides can dismiss it as old news. Slick move, Forrest.
At the end of his apology, Claypool claims he did it all for the kids. “For me, the bottom line is to be here in in service to the kids,” he writes. “That’s what motivates me.”
As I recall, Mayor Rahm also claimed he was looking out for the kids when he closed those 50 schools in 2013.
Hey, kiddies, at Thanksgiving make sure you give a special thanks to your uncles Rahm and Forrest for all the wonderful things they’ve done for you. v