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Ethics board sends Lightfoot campaign complaints to watchdogs

by staff

The Chicago Board of Ethics decided Monday more thorough investigations needed to be done before rendering judgment about whether Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign violated local ethics rules when it solicited Chicago public school teachers to encourage students to help her reelection efforts.

The board tasked the inspectors general for both City Hall and Chicago Public Schools to conduct investigations into the matter, even though both offices were already aware of or probing the matter.

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Given how long such investigations and rulings on those probes take, it seems unlikely there will be an answer before the Feb. 28 election. Early voting begins Thursday.

The mayor landed in hot water earlier this month when it was discovered a deputy on her campaign emailed CPS teachers to recruit their students for Lightfoot’s reelection effort, and offered class credit in exchange.

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Lightfoot’s mayoral challengers pounced, decrying the practice as improper and unethical.

The Chicago Teachers Union — which endorsed Lightfoot challenger Brandon Johnson — said in a letter that it was concerned members who declined to help Lightfoot’s campaign could face retaliation.

“This is the same mayor who promised to clean up corruption and make good ethics an anchor in her administration,” the letter said.

A day after the dust-up, Lightfoot apologized at a news conference, repeatedly saying she was unaware her campaign was contacting CPS teachers and saying the outreach was a mistake made by a staff member. Her campaign, after initially defending the practice, eventually vowed to stop and said it had reminded campaign staff “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 … is off limits. Period.”

The city’s ethics board met Monday afternoon to consider the issue, though neither the board agenda nor members made any mention of the campaign or the mayor directly. Board policy is to keep names and titles confidential unless a violation is found.

But it was clear the potential violation was up for discussion: the board had previously announced it would consider the matter and the city’s inspector general, Deborah Witzburg, was in attendance as were ethics officials from Chicago Public Schools and Chicago City Colleges, where student volunteers were also solicited by Lightfoot’s campaign.

During the meeting, ethics board chair William Conlon also recommended candidates for elected city offices “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 or those employed by sister city agencies.”

It was unlikely the ethics board was going to rule Monday. The board can only adjudicate and settle cases involving alleged violations of city ethics rules when all the facts are known or when a violation is clear. Even then, ethics board adjudication can take weeks or months to conclude.

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When the facts are unclear, the board can refer complaints to inspectors general, which is what the board did in this case. Conlon sent the potential “unauthorized use of real or personal city property” violation to Witzburg and the Chicago Public Schools inspector general’s office, which had already announced it was investigating the matter.

Both watchdogs were tasked with conducting “factual investigations and report(ing) back to the board,” Conlon said, adding that the board had “absolute confidence the inspector general’s office will conduct a thorough, aggressive, and complete and fair-minded investigation.”

aquig@chicagotribune.com

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