The inspector general for Chicago Public Schools is investigating allegations that the district's largest food vendor gave thousands of dollars in gifts to a high-ranking CPS employee, a possible violation of the district's ethics policy..
The investigation was triggered by an anonymous email sent to the Tribune last year. The email detailed allegations against Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, which signed a new $53.2 million food services contract with CPS in May. In the course of reporting the story, the Tribune contacted CPS Inspector General James Sullivan, who launched an independent investigation.
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The alleged gifts also included chartered buses to Lambeau Field for additional Packers games in 2008 and 2009 and dinners at upscale restaurants.
According to Chicago Board of Ethics code, city employees can't accept gifts worth more than $50 from businesses that contract with the city, particularly in cases in which the employee's decisions can influence the bidding process.
CPS officials acknowledged that an investigation was under way but wouldn't make the employee available for comment. The employee couldn't be reached by phone.
"Since the (inspector general) investigation is ongoing, we cannot comment specifically on it at this time," district spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said in a statement. "However, we remind all CPS employees regularly of their responsibility to adhere to all ethics regulations via periodic e-mails, trainings and weekly newsletters."
Ziegler declined to further comment. Sullivan also declined to comment.
Bob Bloomer, a Chartwells regional vice president who oversees the company's contract with CPS, declined to comment when reached by phone last week. In response to questions about whether Chartwells gave gifts to the CPS employee, the company released a statement that read: "It is inappropriate for us to comment on nonpublic information related to bids."
Company spokeswoman Ayde Lyons added: "Like many other companies, we have a policy not to comment on speculation, rumors and allegations."
Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, a division of the global food distributor Compass Group Inc., won its first food service contract with CPS in 2000 and has developed a close relationship with the city's public school system over the years.
Chartwells has spent more than $2 million to feed and aid CPS students since 2000, according to interviews last year with company spokeswoman Jean Saunders.
Last school year, Chartwells donated $39,000 for six scholarships to allow CPS students to pursue careers in the culinary arts. It gave an additional $30,000 to buy backpacks and supplies for a CPSback-to-schooldrive.
When CPS hosted a back-to-school festival in August 2011 for about 5,000 students and their families, Chartwells provided the meals free, Saunders said. The food provider has also donated meals for phone bank workers during the back-to-school drive and for its Safe Haven student mentoring programs.
Chartwells has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years on donations to local school food watchdog Healthy Schools Campaign, and it gives $20,000 annually to the late Maggie Daley's After School Matters charity, which counts Bloomer as a board member.
"We're a part of the community, and we believe pretty strongly we should give back to the community," Saunders said last year. "Our community is Chicago. We're not encouraged, we're strongly advised to make sure we support the community."
In addition to lunch services, Chartwells launched a pilot program to provide free breakfasts to students inside the classroom at a city elementary school in 2007. Four years later, the program had grown to serve 199 public elementary schools in Chicago.
To help build momentum for the program, Chartwells donated $1,000 to any school that offered the free breakfasts during the pilot period, according to CPS officials.
In a presentation to the school board in January 2011, CPS officials credited the breakfast program with improving the "intellectual, emotional, social and physical development" of schoolchildren from low-income families. With strong support of the district's nutrition food services, the board unanimously approved expanding the breakfast program across CPS, a move that increased Chartwells' contract with CPS by about $10 million, the district said.
The city's inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, raised concerns in October about more than $900,000 in gifts that developers gave to the after-schools charity run by former Mayor Richard Daley's late wife. Ferguson concluded that Maggie Daley's charity was benefiting from its ties to City Hall, but he stopped short of saying those developers who were awarded taxpayer subsidies were buying influence with the former mayor.
Ferguson was calling attention to city contracts that included a little known "public benefit clause," which required companies that win contracts with City Hall to donate money to a charity. Taxpayer advocacy groups say such donations, though not illegal, come with almost no public scrutiny and create relationships that give the appearance that companies are trying to curry favor.
CPS' contracts do not contain public benefit clauses, but records show it's common for CPS' top food service vendors to donate heavily to CPS schools and charities.
Preferred Meal Systems, which has a 40-year relationship with CPS and had its $24 million food contract renewed in June, donated $150,000 to the district to help expand the pilot classroom breakfast program, according to company spokesman Ken Trantowski. When the program went districtwide, Preferred's slice of the contract increased by about $1 million, according to CPS records.
Preferred Meal Systems, based in west suburban Berkeley, gave $5,000 this year to another CPS back-to-school effort that gave students free rides on city buses and trains. It has also made an arrangement to donate an undisclosed amount of money in CPS' name to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Trantowski said.
Saunders said such gifts are not improper but something responsible businesses do to help their communities.
"That's the way America works, in that companies and individuals give back," she said.