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Lightfoot campaign defended emails seeking volunteers after CPS raised alarm; memos now subject of watchdog investigations

by staff

A Chicago Public Schools official informed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign team that it can’t recruit students for political work on campus or offer extra credit — hours before the mayor’s campaign released a statement defending it as a “common practice” done for decades, emails obtained by the Chicago Tribune show.

Lightfoot’s campaign emailed CPS teachers earlier this month asking them to help recruit students for her reelection campaign in exchange for class credit.


The Lightfoot campaign’s effort to recruit students is under investigation by CPS inspector general Will Fletcher and Chicago IG Deborah Witzburg. Lightfoot has apologized for the emails, calling them a “mistake” while downplaying them as an error in judgment by a staffer.

Records released to the Tribune show the principal at William Howard Taft High School received the email and forwarded it to a supervisor, who forwarded it to top administrators on Jan. 11.


That afternoon, at 1 p.m., Chuck Swirsky, a senior advisor to CPS head Pedro Martinez, emailed the district’s chief ethics advisor Jennifer Chan and others, “This has been resolved. They will stop.” At 3:16 p.m., Swirsky emailed Lightfoot campaign staffer Megan Crane to document their earlier discussion.

“Thanks for chatting before. Just to reiterate our phone conversation, no recruitment for interns or vols can be done on campus or by staff/teachers. We also can not provide any classroom credit,” Swirsky said. “Any questions can be directed to me or Jennifer Chan, cc’d here. Thanks!”

Hours later, just before 6 p.m., the Lightfoot campaign released a statement denying any wrongdoing and characterizing the email as a typical learning opportunity offered by campaigns.

Later, the team released an amended statement saying it would stop out of an “abundance of caution” and later released another statement saying that all campaign staff members “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.”

It’s not clear why the Lightfoot campaign would defend the practice even after being told it was improper. A spokeswoman did not immediately have comment.

Lightfoot has worked to make amends for the scandal but questions remain about her campaign’s efforts to recruit students from educational institutions that she controls from City Hall.

Last August, Lightfoot’s campaign also contacted City Colleges of Chicago educators to recruit students. The City Colleges, which make up a city of Chicago sister agency controlled by the mayor, released a statement earlier this month saying it had told the Lightfoot campaign that they do not “coordinate with political campaigns.”

The colleges also said they notified “the campaign of CCC’s ethics policy and purged the emails from CCC accounts.”


Since then, City Colleges has not addressed questions about why they “purged” the emails or whether the City Colleges inspector general will be investigating. A spokesperson said the Colleges’ actions were in compliance with the Local Records Act, but did not provide documentation the Tribune requested of the approval public agencies need to dispose of documents.

At a news conference last week, Lightfoot said she had no knowledge about the City Colleges statement.

“The City Colleges said they purged them? I don’t know anything about that, and we have no written record of contact from City Colleges,” Lightfoot said. “What I said, and I think I addressed this last week, is the same issue: It was a mistake for the campaign worker to reach out to City Colleges just as it was a mistake to reach out to CPS.”

Asked if City Colleges called the campaign in August, Lightfoot reiterated “it was a mistake for our campaign worker to reach out, we said that very clearly, I stepped out and I own that and I don’t have any further information at this time.”

After the emails came to light this month, the union for City Colleges of Chicago faculty, the Cook County College Teachers Union, issued a statement expressing its disappointment over the emails, which it called a “flagrant ethics violation.”

“For a mayor who promised to clean up corruption, these emails show an astonishing lack of judgment,” said union President Tony Johnston said.


Many of Lightfoot’s opponents in the Feb. 28 election — for which early voting started Thursday — also took the opportunity to blast the mayor and call for investigations.

Tribune’s Sarah Macaraeg and Alice Yin contributed.

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