Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Has an Email Problem
By John Chase and Jeff Coen and David Heinzmann
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office was more involved in a $20.5 million school contract with a now-indicted consultant than previously disclosed, public records indicate, but his administration has refused to release hundreds of emails that could provide a deeper understanding of how the deal came to be.
Emanuel and his aides have maintained that the mayor's office had nothing to do with the contract to provide leadership training for principals that is at the center of a federal bribery indictment against ex-schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the consulting firm where she once worked.
When asked in April if his administration had any role at all in the SUPES contract, Emanuel told reporters, "No, you obviously know that by all the information available. And so the answer to that is no."
Yet the mayor's office and schools officials have been in an ongoing struggle with the Tribune over reporters' public records requests that could bear directly on the controversy, withholding many emails for months before releasing them, several so heavily redacted that little more than the subject line and addresses remain.
The Emanuel administration has declined to provide about half of the roughly 1,000 emails requested. As part of that fight, the Tribune in June sued the city under the state Freedom of Information Act after the mayor's office redacted or withheld about two dozen emails emanating from Emanuel's office.
While much of the picture remains missing, the email logs and documents the administration did release show frequent communication among key Emanuel aides, Chicago school leaders and the heads of the SUPES Academy consulting firm in the months, weeks and days leading up to Emanuel's hand-picked school board awarding the contract in June 2013.
The consulting firm's ties date to the beginning of Emanuel's administration in 2011; in addition to recommending Byrd-Bennett, SUPES co-owner Gary Solomon helped recruit Emanuel's first schools CEO.
Specifically, the email logs indicate that key CPS officials and SUPES executives had numerous discussions about the SUPES firm and principal leadership training -- a crucial element of Emanuel's education agenda -- ahead of education meetings in the mayor's office in May 2013 and in June 2013, prior to the board vote. Those meetings included the mayor, his top education adviser Beth Swanson, Byrd-Bennett and top CPS officials involved in the SUPES discussions, according to copies of Emanuel's public calendar.
On Thursday, Byrd-Bennett and the co-owners of SUPES were indicted on charges that she steered them the no-bid business in return for promises of more than $2 million in kickbacks, other perks and a future job. Prosecutors alleged that Byrd-Bennett schemed with her SUPES colleagues even as she was joining CPS.
Much of the alleged scheming is laid out in the federal indictment by way of emails between Byrd-Bennett and Solomon. It's unclear what type of email accounts were involved and therefore hard to know whether the emails should have been turned over in response to Tribune requests for public records.
SUPES' work at CPS predated Byrd-Bennett's time as CEO. The firm had begun providing leadership training for school executives in 2012, months before she took over the reins at CPS.
But by early 2013, efforts to expand the program were growing, and emails obtained by the Tribune show SUPES' co-owners and CPS officials discussing how to secure more money to broaden the training. Some of those emails were exchanged on the same day in May that CPS officials were scheduled to meet with Emanuel. The emails often referenced the phrase "CELA," shorthand for the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy, an Emanuel-backed initiative to train school leaders.
In one email, the CPS official shepherding the SUPES contract, Alicia Winckler, received an update from a procurement officer about how much money had already been spent on SUPES, expressing concern about a budget "gap/shortfall" in the near future unless a new contract is approved. At almost the exact same time, Winckler was emailing SUPES' co-owners, Solomon and firm President Tom Vranas, with the subject line "Budget." The Tribune has not received that email.
Then just hours before the meeting with the mayor, Winckler sent an email to Robert Boik, a top aide to Byrd-Bennett, with the subject line "Mayor's Report DRAFT for Talent." As the "talent officer" for the district, Winckler headed the department responsible for principal recruitment and training. The administration has withheld the email containing that report.
Within hours, Boik was scheduled to attend the "Vision/Action plan" meeting in Emanuel's office with the mayor, Byrd-Bennett, Swanson, other top Emanuel aides and two members of the school board, David Vitale and Jesse Ruiz, according to the mayor's calendar.
About a month later there was another series of emails between key players prior to an education meeting with Emanuel.
The back-and-forth on one string in June was completely redacted by CPS except for the message Swanson wrote to Byrd-Bennett: "Getting my frustration out today via email!"
The subject line on that email was "Next wed." Because it is redacted it is hard to know what was discussed. But the following Wednesday, Emanuel was scheduled to meet with Swanson, Byrd-Bennett, school board members Ruiz and Vitale, the board chairman, according to the mayor's calendar.
Then the day of the meeting with the mayor -- two weeks before the board vote -- CPS officials forwarded around and discussed several SUPES-related emails, including one titled "SUPES Board report." School officials did not provide those emails to the Tribune, but that title is the same one used for the summary report to the school board outlining the no-bid contract.
In the final days leading up to the June 26 school board meeting, the mayor's office was involved in a flurry of communications with Byrd-Bennett and her top deputies about SUPES, according to email logs and the email records provided by the Emanuel administration. That included emails between SUPES co-owner Solomon and the contract's overseer at CPS, Winckler.
In an email thread titled "City Hall questions on SUPES," a CPS aide states, "The Mayor's Office has asked us for additional information on the SUPES board report." The questions included where the money is coming from and if there are any principals or others outside CPS who could speak favorably about the SUPES program, according to the email.
"There is some concern that we're spending a large sum on some principals while laying off others, and teachers," wrote Dave Miranda, a now former deputy spokesman for CPS. The email does not mention any concern about the no-bid nature of the deal or the ties between SUPES and Byrd-Bennett.
While Miranda's email touched off a burst of exchanges within CPS and to City Hall, Emanuel's office refused to provide related emails between Swanson and her boss, Emanuel chief of staff Lisa Schrader.
Among the first emails sent on the topic was from Becky Carroll, a longtime Emanuel aide who at the time was heading up CPS' communications office. She wrote, "I'm calling Lisa to explain," a possible reference to Schrader. Carroll declined to comment on the email chain when reached by the Tribune last week.
After more internal emails within CPS were exchanged, Byrd-Bennett sent a note only to Swanson, venting to her that she was being "second guessed" and micromanaged.
"I can not be second guessed like this...the level of micromanaging by people who have no track record and have not led or managed anything is in some ways insulting," Byrd-Bennett wrote.
"I wear all of the problems...no credit for anything positive and now everything info is micro questioned," Byrd-Bennett continued. "...Either people think I can do this or.......what do they want Can you call me?????"
Around the same time, Winckler wrote to Byrd-Bennett to inform her she would soon answer the questions and stated she would also call "B. Swanson," which Byrd-Bennett encourages her to do. The next morning, Winckler emailed Byrd-Bennett to say she called Swanson.
"Think we're good," Winckler wrote.
As those emails were shuttling back and forth, another email thread shows Solomon communicating regularly with Winckler, telling her Byrd-Bennett and Swanson were on the phone late into the night after the City Hall questions were raised.
"She was pissed," Solomon wrote of Byrd-Bennett.
Solomon followed up, asking if there had been any word back from City Hall. He said he understood Emanuel aide Swanson and Byrd-Bennett had spoken but added he wasn't sure where the school board chairman stood on the deal.
"Vitale is my concern," Solomon wrote.
At the board meeting the next day, Vitale and Ruiz were part of the school board's 6-0 vote to approve the SUPES contract without discussion.
"I don't recall talking to the mayor about the SUPES situation at any meeting," Vitale told the Tribune recently. Vitale said he did remember talking to Emanuel about school closings during that time frame; on May 22, the board had voted to close four dozen public schools.
Ruiz likewise told the Tribune he did not recall any discussion of SUPES in any meetings with Emanuel.
Schrader, who is no longer Emanuel's chief of staff, declined to answer questions about the events. But she said in an emailed statement that "it was our role to ask questions regarding proposed items, which we did in this case."
Asked if federal investigators had sought emails or interviews with anyone in the mayor's office, Emanuel spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said "no one from this office has been subpoenaed, nor has anyone been contacted or materials been requested."
Neither Emanuel, his aides nor his communications office would answer detailed Tribune questions based on the email and meeting records. Quinn said in a statement that the mayor "was not briefed on how CPS would contract for such services."
Emanuel said little about the matter Thursday in reacting to the indictments.
"I think when people serve the public, they should uphold the trust the public puts in them," Emanuel told reporters. "At least based on the details around the charges, that wasn't the case here."
Winckler and Boik did not return calls for comment.
Swanson declined to comment. Her attorney has said she cooperated with the federal investigation and was not a target.
A log of emails from the mayor's office showed Swanson, the mayor's education point person, sending or receiving SUPES-related messages more than a dozen times during the days before the board vote.
But Swanson's responses were not included in the documents turned over to the Tribune. The mayor's office has declined to release what emails it has in its possession from this chain, stating those emails are covered by an exemption in the state law for "preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated."
The mayor's office defended its redaction of some of the emails it did release on the grounds they contained personal information or would have been an invasion of the privacy of either the sender or recipient.
Federal prosecutors said Byrd-Bennett is cooperating with investigators and plans to plead guilty to the charges and testify if necessary. Solomon's attorney also said his client did not anticipate going to trial, a signal that he likely will plead guilty as well.
Chicago Tribune's Juan Perez Jr. and Bill Ruthhart contributed.
(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune