The chief of food services at Chicago Public Schools and two members of her staff have received gifts worth thousands of dollars from the district's two largest food vendors since 2007, a serious violation of the district's ethics code, according to an investigation by CPS Inspector General James Sullivan.
The Tribune reported earlier this week that the inspector general was investigating whether a high-ranking CPS employee received a vendor's skybox tickets to a Green Bay Packers home game in both 2008 and 2009, including one for the night Packers legend Brett Favre returned as a member of the rival Minnesota Vikings.
The inspector general's report identifies the employee as Louise Esaian, the district's head of Nutrition Support Services, and says the gifts extended far beyond football games to include expensive dinners, gifts and liquor, all from two vendors that have combined food contracts at CPS totaling $75 million.
Esaian, who earned $147,400 last year as the top-ranking official in food services at CPS, manages contracts with food vendors and oversees the bidding process for contracts.
She told Sullivan she was aware of the district's ethics policies, which restrict CPS employees from accepting gifts worth more than $50 from businesses that contract with the district, according to the report. But she said she did not believe the dinners and gifts crossed the line.
According to the report, Esaian admitted receiving tickets for herself and at least seven family members and friends to the two Packers games. The estimated value for the seats, meals and other concessions was at least $20,000, the report said.
The gifts came from high-ranking executives at Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality and Preferred Meals Systems during a period when the school board was considering and ultimately approved lucrative contract extensions for both companies, the report said.
The gifts included:
Meals at upscale Chicago restaurants, such as Merlo on Maple, Naha,Province, Custom House and Nomi
Candy, liquor and flowers for Esaian's birthday
A $250 gift certificate for a spa treatment atMacy's
A $140 etched crystal hologram of Esaian's parents
The investigation also found 143 purchases on Esaian's personal credit cards for dinners and drinks on outings that may have included representatives from either Chartwells or Preferred, underscoring how close Esaian was to the food vendors she oversaw.
Sullivan's report does not accuse Esaian of criminal wrongdoing because there is not evidence that the gifts influenced Esaian's decisions. But Sullivan does call for CPS to take disciplinary action against Esaian and two lower-ranking district employees who also accepted meals from the food vendors.
CPS officials declined to answer specific questions about the report and did not make Esaian available for comment. District spokeswoman Becky Carroll said in a statement, "The Chicago Public Schools takes any alleged violation of the Code of Ethics very seriously and appropriate corrective actions will be taken in the immediate future."
According to the report, Esaian said she had friendly relationships with officials at both Chartwells and Preferred and that she didn't report these gifts on her ethics disclosure statement, as required, because she thought these were personal meetings paid for with personal credit cards.
Esaian said the gifts were not an attempt to buy favor with the district and said they did not influence the bidding, according to the report.
Many of the gifts allegedly came from Bob Bloomer, a Chartwells regional vice president who oversees the company's contract with CPS. Bloomer told Sullivan that it was his job to make his clients happy and that Esaian never turned down an offer for a free meal or drink, the report stated.
Bloomer on Friday declined to comment. Ayde Lyons, a Chartwells spokeswoman in New York, said the company had not yet received the report and would not comment.
Art Bell, a senior executive vice president of sales at Preferred, told Sullivan that he's been friends with Esaian for 25 years and that the two previously worked together at another company before Esaian was hired by CPS. Bell and Rufus Stephens, who oversees the CPS contract for Preferred, are alleged to have spent lavishly on Esaian and purchased dozens of meals for her at various restaurants.
Preferred spokesman Ken Trantowski declined to answer questions about the report and did not make Bell or Stephens available for comment.
Instead, the company released this statement: "It is a Preferred Meal Systems corporate policy not to comment on any ongoing or completed investigations involving Preferred Meal Systems customers or employees. For the record, Preferred Meal Systems permits its executives to conduct business-related lunch or dinner meetings with customers throughout the year."