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Evanston’s Board of Ethics met on April 18 to hear complaints filed by three people, arising out of the recently concluded campaign season. The Board exonerated several elected officials, but found an email endorsement sent out by Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, violated the City’s Code of Ethics. The Board also took two other matters “under advisement” to study further. A final decision is expected May 2, when the body reconvenes.
A complaint filed by Betty Ester, and found by the Board to be substantially similar to a complaint filed by Madelyn Ducré, accused Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite, Seventh Ward Alderman Eleanor Revelle, and Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl of ethics violations, based solely on their public endorsement of Robin Rue for Fifth Ward Alderman. Ald. Holmes was also named. The Board flatly rejected the contention that endorsements constituted a violation.
Board Chair Mark Shelton announced there is “no issue with elected public officials endorsing a candidate” and that aspect of the complaint is “without merit.”
The Ald. Holmes endorsement, however, came via email sent from an official City of Evanston email, and the Board determined the email was a violation. No ramifications of the violation were announced and the matter stands reserved until May 2. The Board indicated City staff training would be one likely outcome.
The email endorsement came on or about March 10, 2017, just before early voting began. At about that time, Ald. Holmes said, “The City changed from Outlook to Google.
“Many were asking me who I endorsed,” she said. Ald. Holmes said she knew how to use Outlook to send emails to her personal list, which she had compiled over the past 12 years, but she did not know how to do so on the new Google platform. She sought City staff help.
The next thing she knew, Ald. Holmes said, the City sent her endorsement out to some 2,600 recipients, including Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, and her email list. The endorsement was sent from the City address rather than from Ald. Holmes’ personal Gmail or AOL mail account.
Ald. Holmes said she did not know it went out from a “.org” address until Ald. Rainey called her to ask about it. “That was the first I heard anything about it,” said Ald. Holmes.
“The City screwed this [the transition from Outlook to Google] so badly, every alderman in town experienced problems,” said Ald. Rainey, attending the meeting as an observer.
“You called IT for help,” said Ethics Board member Vincent Jackson to Ald. Homes, “and this ended up happening.”
Ald. Holmes said she did not know where the names on the 2,600-person email list came from.
Nevertheless, the Board found the use of City resources, in whatever form and for whatever reason, to send out an endorsement email to be a violation of the Code of Ethics. “Did it occur to you that City staff was doing work for you?” asked Board Chair Mark Sheldon.
Ald. Braithwaite praised Ald. Homes and her legacy in defending his decision to endorse Robin Rue. “My endorsement came shortly after Ald. Holmes announced hers,” he said. He did not use any City resources to make such an endorsement, nor did he campaign on City property, he said.
“It is unfortunate we have to go through this process,” he said, adding that he “learned from Ald. Homes not only in her role as alderman but as Director of Family Focus for many years.”
Ald. Revelle similarly explained her decision to endorse. She used no City resources to do so, she said.
Mayor Tisdahl did not attend the hearing.
“I did not know you could not endorse people. I’ve been endorsing people ever since I got on Council,” said Ald. Holmes. She also endorsed Steve Hagerty for Mayor, Melissa Wynne for Third Ward Alderman, Ann Rainey for Eighth Ward Alderman, and Cicely Fleming for Ninth Ward Alderman, but there were no ethics complaints regarding those endorsements, she said.
The Board ultimately agreed that endorsing candidates did not violate the Code of Ethics.
A complaint filed by Misty Witenberg, one of five candidates for Fifth Ward Alderman who lost in the primary, alleged that Ald. Holmes committed ethics violations, also involving email. “An email I sent to Mayor Tisdahl and Ald. Holmes,” she said, “had been forwarded to a member of my opponent’s campaign team.”
The email at issue referenced threats and intimidation on the campaign trail, alleging that Ms. Witenberg’s campaign manager, Adrian Willoughby, was told by Ms. Rue that she “couldn’t be responsible for what [other people] did.” Mr. Willoughby did not file a complaint and did not appear at the hearing,
Ms. Witenberg’s email further alleged that Facebook posts referred to a “race war,” and Ms. Rue’s response, urging supporters to “love thy enemies” as themselves, “exacerbates the divide.” Ms. Witenberg urged Mayor Tisdahl and Ald. Holmes to “address this comment and/or situation appropriately…”
“You sought out Ms. Holmes’ help in working something out. What were you hoping to accomplish?” asked Board chair Shelton.
Ms. Witenberg said she was seeking clarity and an apology.
“The [Witenberg] email was very disturbing to me,” said. Ald. Holmes. She addressed it by calling Ms. Rue directly. “I called Robin and told her everything in the email,” she said. There was no other way to address the situation. “You know I don’t do social media,” she added, but talked to Ms. Rue about the “love not just your neighbor, but your enemy” Bible verse.
Ald. Holmes forwarded the message to Janet Alexander Davis, who is the Chair of the W.E.S.T., a longstanding organization focused on the Fifth Ward. She addressed the situation by calling Ms. Rue directly. “Anything sent to me is public information anyway,” said Ald. Holmes, “but I was really talking to the co-chair of W.E.S.T.”
Ms. Witenberg said she received copies of the email chain after submitting a Freedom of Information Act request seeking public records. Her ethics complaint concerned not the threats described in her email, but only the fact that in addressing the threats Ald. Holmes revealed the contents of her email, which was not marked private.
The issue, according to the Board of Ethics, is Ms. Davis’ involvement with the Rue campaign, since Ms. Witenberg’s complaint calls Ms. Davis “the Opposing Candidate’s campaign manager and/or First Listed Campaign Team Member.” Ald. Holmes calls her the co-chair of W.E.S.T. The Board reserved the matter for further consideration.
Ms. Ester also raised complaints about Ms. Rue’s employment by Sunshine Enterprises, an organization that receives some funding voted on by City Council based in part on recommendations from the City’s Economic Development Committee. Ms. Rue sits on the City’s Minority, Women and Evanston Based Enterprises (MWEBE) Committee.
The Board of Ethics took under advisement allegations that serving on MWEBE while working for an organization receiving grants through Economic Development and City Council represented a conflict of interest.
The Board, including three new members appointed by Mayor Tisdahl to fill long-vacant seats just this month, needed more time to study and receive advice on the issue. “The issue has not been decided,” said City attorney Michelle Masoncup.
Several other complaints regarding Ms. Rue were found to have no merit, including allegations that her rental of office space in a building owned by former Second Ward Alderman and current Cook County Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste constituted an ethics violation. Ms. Rue has a lease and pays rent directly from her own personal funds, she said.
Questions about Signature Construction, a company once owned by Ms. Rue that ceased operating in 2014, were also found to be “not a violation” by the Board.
Finally, Ms. Rue’s and Ms. Holmes’ service on the Mayor-appointed aldermanic compensation committee was not a violation. That committee makes recommendations regarding the stipends the mayor and aldermen receive. City Council then votes to set compensation. “The point is we [City Council] all voted on our salary,” said Ald. Rainey. “The law says we have to.”
The Board, having found one ethics violation, the Holmes email endorsement, and reserved judgment on two others, will reconvene at 6:30 p.m. on May 2 in the Morton Civic Center for further deliberations and rulings.