It’s lost to the mists of time now, but about a year ago there was a big conflict of interest story in Chicago politics that dominated the news headlines for a day or two.
Back then, it was powerful City Council Finance Chairman Ed Burke who was at the center of charges he helped a private company profit to the tune of millions from public dollars. Seems Burke used his position as finance chair to help funnel more than $18.1 million in property-tax refunds for Chicago property owners through his Loop law firm, resulting in more than $3.6 million in lost revenue for City Hall.
At the time, Burke said he did nothing wrong, yet he and his firm won those dollars by wielding his clout for wealthy clients with the Cook County assessor, the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board and the Cook County courts, among others. More importantly, however, when asked by a reporter what he thought of Burke screwing the city out of millions of dollars as a tax lawyer representing wealthy clients in cases before the city, Mayor Rahm Emanuel basically shrugged his shoulders and said Burke had every right to fleece taxpayers if he so chose.
The Burke story matters again because once again because, when faced with new allegations of a substantial conflict of interest by a city official, Mayor Emanuel has chosen to turn a blind eye. This time, it’s the Chicago Pubic Schools and one of its board members, Deborah Quazzo.
It was recently reported that Quazzo, who Emanuel picked to replace outgoing board member Penny Pritzker in 2013, saw her personal business with CPS’ triple since Emanuel appointed her, raking in as much as $2.9 million for companies she has invested in.
The Sun-Times reports that “in all, five companies in which Quazzo has an ownership stake have been paid more than $3.8 million by CPS for ACT prep or online help with reading, writing and math. One of them stands to collect an additional $1.6 million this year from a district contract.”
For most people, that would sound like something of a conflict of interest, or at least an issue worth looking more into. But since this is Chicago, and since we’re talking about one of the mayor’s hand-picked school board members, things don’t actually work that way.
Quazzo’s businesses specialize in educational software that is designed to support—or in some cases, replace—teachers and their role in educating students. Software of the kind Quazzo’s companies invest in are a booming business, and Quazzo has leveraged her background of 20 years as an investment banker to entice venture capitalists and others to support the idea of for better learning through technology.
Yet whether or not Quazzo used her position or connections to help enrich the companies she represents hardly seems the point for Mayor Emanuel.
[S]peaking for the first time since the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that CPS’ business with companies Quazzo invested in tripled since Emanuel appointed her, the mayor refused to answer questions about when he learned about her business interests with Chicago Public Schools.
“Deb says she’ll answer any questions, the [Inspector General’s] going to look into it. I’m pleased that she’s volunteered her time to serve and she’s going to continue to do it,” Emanuel said of Quazzo, who donated $5,000 to his 2011 mayoral campaign.
He left as a reporter asked why he didn’t see any conflict of interest.
In other words, nothing to see here, people. Rahm appointed Deborah Quazzo, she’s on the board, and if there’s a problem with someone making money off the situation, well, tough.
After all, it’s not like CPS isn't already in the business of throwing money needed for children’s education into the wind, whether it’s losing hundreds of millions on bad financial deals or letting an employee defraud the system with hundreds of millions more in false billings.
You don't hear Mayor Emanuel—a man who rode into office promising to operate the most ethically clean and transparent government the city has ever seen—talking about those issues either. After all, there’s an election coming up, and the Mayor’s focused on convincing voters he’s the right man to make the tough choices for Chicago.
In the end, what you need to know is this: Rahm Emanuel appointed an millionaire venture capitalist who invests in educational software programs used by CPS and other school districts to replace a billionaire who sat in the seat before her on the board of education.
And then, some people made some money.
As far as the mayor’s concerned, there’s really nothing more to tell.