CPS Inspector General launches investigation into Lightfoot campaign's call for student volunteers

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection campaign has promised to stop contacting Chicago Public Schools teachers after it faced backlash for soliciting volunteer work from their students in exchange for class credit, a move a former city inspector general called "deeply, deeply problematic."

The race for City Hall is shifting into high gear with seven weeks left until Election Day, and Lightfoot is looking for all the help she can get.

A deputy campaign manager sent out an email to CPS teachers Tuesday that read, in part:

"As the race heats up, we're looking to enrich our office through what we call our externship program. Could you please share this opportunity with your students? I've included more information below: 

Lightfoot for Chicago is seeking resumes from any volunteer interested in campaign politics and eager to gain experience in the field. The ideal volunteer will be efficient, well organized and enthusiastic about joining a dynamic team. A strong commitment to Democratic ideals is essential.

Externs are expected to devote 12hrs/wk to the campaign. Students are eligible to earn class credit through our volunteer program. 

Volunteers will join an experienced team of staff and consultants, providing a unique opportunity to learn the field, finance, and communications aspects of a campaign. Volunteer tasks include voter contact, attending events, and more. We are very flexible with student schedules.

No prior campaign experience is required, nor is a major or minor in political science. We're simply looking for enthusiastic, curious and hard-working young people eager to help Mayor Lightfoot win this spring."

Mayoral candidate Sophia King and other challengers are denouncing the program set forth by Lightfoot's re-election campaign.

The mayor's campaign initially defended her proposed student externships as a "common practice." However, later Tuesday evening, the campaign reversed course in a new statement appearing to acknowledge the growing chorus of criticism. 

Candidate Brandon Johnson is a veteran organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, which provided news outlets with copies of the controversial email. 

"It's not just someone who breaks promises, but running an unethical operation," said Johnson.


Lightfoot's campaign's statement read:

"Our campaign has been blessed with enthusiastic support from young people across the city. From the very start, we’ve been intentional in our efforts to provide young people with the opportunity to engage with our campaign, learn more about the importance of civic engagement, and participate in the most American of processes. This is a common practice that has been utilized in city, state, and federal level campaigns for decades, and has given countless high school and college students the opportunity to learn more about the election process. All of our recruitment was done using publicly available contact information. All LFC campaign staff 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."

CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher has opened an investigation into the matter. 

"We are currently gathering information to determine which, if any, policies have been violated," the OIG said in a statement Thursday. 

The CPS ethics policy prohibits district employees from forwarding or passing along materials from political campaigns. The policy further prohibits school staffers from using their positions to engage in political activity or doing political work on school time.

Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg says she has "been in touch" with Fletcher and is in the information-gathering stage that may well be a prelude to a full-blown investigation.

"One of the things to be considered here is, if something went wrong, whether that issue was cured by calling it off," Witzburg told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Several Chicago mayoral candidates reacted to the email sent to CPS teachers.

"I’m flabbergasted," said mayoral candidate Sophia King. "This is pay-to-play except with unsuspecting and vulnerable victims. There is no lens that makes this ethical. As a teacher, I’d give her an F. Actually she’d be expelled. This is the lack of transparency I want to change for Chicago. And our collaborative approach to building better government is gaining traction."

"Mayor Lightfoot has failed our schools and our teachers at every turn in the last four years, and now wants to make public employees and our children her personal campaign resource. This is completely unethical, a hypocritical contradiction to her campaign promises of better government, and a disgraceful exploitation of public school students," said mayoral candidate Eugene Sawyer.

"Just when you think Chicago’s storied history of political patronage and machine corruption is breaking down, Lori Lightfoot proves she’s keeping it alive. This heavy-handed misuse and abuse of power is a reminder that Lori Lightfoot has no respect for the law," said mayoral candidate Kam Buckner. "Instead of recognizing the mistake, her campaign doubled down because Lori Lightfoot is incapable of recognizing right from wrong. Her arrogance and incompetence are inexcusable and Chicago needs to be rescued from four years of broken promises about ‘bringing in the light’. The City’s Inspector General as well as the Chicago Board of Elections should immediately investigate whether the Mayor’s lack of integrity also breaks the law."

"This is deeply troubling behavior from a desperate Mayor. She should be more concerned about fully funding Chicago Public Schools than using them as a recruiting pipeline of free labor for her re-election campaign," said candidate Chuy Garcia.

"This is deeply troubling news out of the Lightfoot Campaign. The manipulation of teachers and children is unspeakable. Mayor Lightfoot should be ashamed of herself for allowing her campaign to violate her own ethics policy by contacting city government employees on their official email accounts for political purposes. Accountability demands an independent inquiry in the form of a joint City and CPS Inspector General investigation. Chicago residents deserve answers," said candidate Paul Vallas.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.