News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

The Tribune takes Mayor Emanuel to court over Byrd-Bennett e-mails

Answers to questions about Mayor Rahm's role in the Byrd-Bennett scandal may be buried in the e-mails he's fighting to keep secret.



Not to put pressure on the Tribune's lawyers, but if we're ever going to get to the bottom of the scandal known as Supesgate, they'll have to win their Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against Mayor Emanuel's administration.

So get your sleep, fellas. Also, take your vitamins. And eat your vegetables!

Actually, I may be the only one who calls it Supesgate, obsessed as I am with Watergate, the scandal that brought down President Nixon way back in the 70s.

In Watergate, President Nixon's henchmen sent in some burglars to snoop around Democratic headquarters, looking for information they could use against the Democrats in the 1972 presidential election.

In Supesgate, the mayor's handpicked school board approved a $20.5 million, no-bid principal training contract with Supes Academy, a company that was kicking back 10 percent of the deal to Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the mayor's handpicked schools CEO.

There are some broad parallels between the two scandals. In Watergate everyone wanted to know what President Nixon knew and when he knew it. In Supesgate, the compelling question is how Mayor Rahm, or at least his administration, could sign off on such a slimy deal.

That brings us back to the Tribune's lawsuit. Many of the answers regarding Mayor Rahm's role may be buried in the e-mails he's fighting so hard to keep secret.

At this point, I need to give a shout-out to Bill Ruthhart, the Tribune investigative reporter who got this case going back in April, soon after word broke that the feds were investigating Byrd-Bennett's role in the deal.

On April 24, Ruthhart filed a Freedom of Information Act request basically seeking all the e-mails to and from Mayor Emanuel and his top aides regarding Supes. As a follow-up, Ruthhart requested a log of all those e-mails.

On May 8, Chloe Rasmus, the mayor's FOIA officer, sent Ruthhart a log that revealed dozens of e-mails had been sent back and forth over Supes.

For instance, Gary Solomon, the founder of Supes, had exchanged e-mails with Elizabeth Swanson, the mayor's top educational adviser, as far back as 2011, suggesting he was worming his way into the good graces of the Emanuel administration even before Byrd-Bennett was appointed CEO.

The feds would eventually indict Solomon on charges of having bribed Byrd-Bennett to win the consulting contract.

Curiously, there are also e-mails from Bruce Rauner to Penny Pritzker. Yes, that's the same Bruce Rauner you elected as your governor, Illinois.

It's also the same Penny Pritzker who sat on the school board before she went to Washington as President Obama's Commerce Department secretary. Back then, Rauner—like Pritzker—was a fabulously wealthy major donor of the charter school movement. Lord knows exactly why their e-mail exchange would pop up in connection to Supes.

In addition, there's an e-mail sent by Alicia Winckler—a top CPS aide—entitled "City Hall questions on SUPES." It was sent to various CPS officials.

Obviously, there had been questions on the pros and cons of the contract.

To get at this information, Ruthhart submitted a FOIA request on May 12, zeroing in on 25 e-mail chains from the log, including the e-mails written by Rauner, Winckler, and Solomon.

Ruthhart's request put the mayor in bind. On the one hand, Emanuel's vowed to be Chicago's most transparent mayor. On the other hand, he's obviously reluctant to turn over information that might make him look bad.

So he stonewalled Ruthhart—to use an infamous term from the Nixon White House.

On May 28, the Emanuel administration sent Ruthhart 19 heavily redacted e-mail chains. There were so many redactions it was impossible to determine who was saying what to whom. Moreover, the redactions were made with some sort of white material that blended in with the page, so it was hard to even tell how many e-mails had been redacted.

The administration did release a few chatty little e-mails between Solomon and Swanson along the lines of "How was your weekend?" Think of it as Mayor Emanuel's way of giving Ruthhart the finger.

To justify the redactions, Rasmus invoked some of the mayor's favorite FOIA dodges, including the "preliminary draft exemption." That's the exemption that enables city officials to keep you in the dark regarding what they're up to on the grounds that "opinions are expressed" when "policies and actions are formulated."

The idea is that if aides know that their behind-the-scenes advice will someday be public they'll be more reluctant to share it, thus depriving the mayor of their precious counsel. As if it amounts to anything more than: Another good idea, boss.

On June 24, the Tribune filed suit in Cook County court, seeking to compel the administration to release unredacted versions of the 25 e-mail chains. The mayor's vigorously contesting the suit, so it may be months before it's resolved.

In the last few weeks, the mayor did independently release an e-mail requested by Ruthhart.

It's the one in which a former CPS press aide named David Miranda noted that, "There is some concern that we're spending a large sum on some principals while laying off others, and teachers."

The mayor released it on October 9, just after Byrd-Bennett had been indicted. By selectively releasing that e-mail, the mayor was clearly trying to convince the public that he had done his due diligence on the Supes deal.

What the mayor didn't say is how he or his top advisers responded to Miranda. In other words, what did they say to justify approving the $20.5 million contract in light of all the school cuts?

I guess that's just one of the many revelations buried in the e-mails the mayor doesn't want you to read.

As you can see, the mayor's highly selective—and a little sneaky—when it comes to releasing e-mails.

Tricky Dick would be proud.  v

Comments (8)

Showing 1-8 of 8

Add a comment

Add a comment