On Oct. 25, the City’s Board of Ethics held a hearing on a complaint filed by Mary (Lori) Keenan and Clare Kelly that alleged that Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, engaged in various conduct that violated the City’s Code of Ethics. The Board took jurisdiction over five claims.

The Board decided, 4-0, that Ald. Rainey’s conduct violated two provisions of the Code of Ethics. It found that there were no violations on the other three claims. 

Ms. Keenan and Ms. Kelly filed a statement of evidence along with their complaint, and their lawyers Anish Parikh and Jeff Smith, respectively, made statements on their behalf at the hearing. Ms. Keenan also provided a short statement.

Ald. Rainey and her attorney, Scott Levin, presented statements in her defense.

Some Background

The case arises out of actions taken by Ald. Rainey relating to the Harley Clarke mansion. On Nov. 13, 2017 City Council directed staff to prepare a 40-year lease with Evanston Lakehouse Gardens (ELG). Under the lease the mansion would be used for environmental, arts and other programming. There would be a three-year trial period under which ELG would be required to raise $5 million to go toward capital improvements, and if the benchmark was not met, the City could explore other options, which one Alderman said might include demolition.

Ms. Keenan and Ms. Kelly both supported the efforts of ELG.

On March 12, 2018, City Council voted to “introduce” (not approve) a proposed lease with ELG, with Ald. Rainey casting the only no vote. The proposed lease contained a benchmark to raise $2 million, rather than $5 million. When the Mayor asked why, staff said ELG would be required to raise $2 million in cash, versus $5 million in pledges. A number of aldermen raised concerns about this change.

At some point a group of people began to form to support a demolition of the mansion and return the site to its natural state. Ald. Rainey began communications with members of this group.

Ald. Rainey’s Emails and Alleged Conduct

On March 28, 2018, Ald. Rainey sent an email to Jeff Coney saying, “If you do nothing else, you need to call Don Wilson and explain to him the City cannot afford Harley Clarke.”

Later on March 28, Ald. Rainey sent another email to Jeff Coney, saying, “Please let Chuck know that [Alderman] Suffredin is coming back from Springfield that night for the reason only to vote for Harley Clarke – he is getting into his car in returning to Springfield after our meeting. Would be interested if you all could help him save himself the trip and do the right thing and just stay in Springfield.”

At the next City Council meeting, which was held on April 9, 2018 a motion to authorize the City Manager to execute a lease of the Harley Clarke mansion to the Evanston Lake House and Gardens group failed by a 7-2 vote. Alderman Thomas Suffredin and Alderman Eleanor Revelle voted in favor of the motion. A two-thirds vote was needed to approve the lease.

On April 18, Ald. Rainey sent an email allegedly to William Stafford, Jeff Coney and Chuck Lewis, saying, “They’re planning on a move to reconsider on Monday [April 23]. How about a 4 o’clock at peckish pig on Friday do you have other people in the group?

Mr. Stafford replied “We will be there.” Ald. Rainey sent another email, to William Stafford, with a cc to Jeff Coney and Charles Lewis, saying, “Great. I will see you all there at 4 o’clock on Friday if you have any other members of your group please bring them. In the meantime I will get as much information as I can regarding what might be happening on Monday night.”

Mr. Lewis sent a reply saying he could meet, but said he did not see how the aldermen could change their minds. Later that same evening, April 18, Ald. Rainey sent an email to Chuck Lewis, with a cc to William Stafford, Jeff Coney, Nicole Kustok, Joe Flanagan and Joan Alsterda, saying, “Chuck sorry to tell you this but Don Wilson is interested in moth balling the mansion – He knows another group that might be interested. The mayor is getting a lot of pressure because he lives on the lake.”

While an email sent in the morning of April 23 has surfaced through FOIA requests, it was not presented at the Board of Ethics hearing.

No motion was made at the April 23 City Council meeting to reconsider the decision that rejected a lease with ELG.

At the Council meeting on May 29, Noreen Edwards Metz and Nicole Kustok made a presentation on behalf of a group called Evanston Lighthouse Dunes (the “Dunes Group”) to pay for the demolition of the mansion. Ald. Rainey asked that City staff prepare an “immediate resolution” accepting the offer.

The next day, May 30, Ald. Rainey sent an email to the City Manager, City Council, cc. to Nicole Kustok and Jeff Coney, requesting the City Manager to assign staff to prepare a resolution directing the City Manager to meet with the citizens represented by Nicole Kustok and Jeff Coney to begin the process of accepting the groups “generous financial support” to remove the mansion and coach house. She said, “Time to move forward; the offer is limited… We have a gift, let’s be gracious and accept it.”

About 10 minutes later on May 30, Ald. Rainey sent an email to Jeff Coney, Nicole Kustok, Bill Stafford, Chuck Lewis with a cc to Alderman Judy Fiske, advising that the City’s alderman had received at least 100 emails opposing demolition of the mansion.

In response to an email reply from Mr. Lewis, Ald. Rainey said, “I’m sorry but I think you’re totally wrong my emails now total above 300 Judy’s message is now confusing because she has opened the door to mothballing the house.

“If there are 300+ people against destroying the house and nobody in favor according to the emails then why not save the house? You have to conduct a campaign on MoveOn If not starting next week you have to get the troops out this looks very bad.”

On June 5, Ald. Rainey sent an email to an 8th Ward constituent saying, “Although they have sufficient funds to finance the effort (things will definitely come up), they want to be able to say they have financial support from all the wards. Currently, short 8th and 3rd Ward so I am out beating the bushes for a few small contributions. Can your family help with a small donation? We have 2 so far Let me know.”

Ald. Rainey said this was the only email she sent asking for contributions. She said she asked a friend for a contribution, and she made one. Each contributed $100, and all three checks were payable to the “City of Evanston.”

In response to questions, Ald. Rainey said she was not asked to solicit funds.

On Aug. 21, Ald. Rainey was one of three judges that convened to hear objections to a referendum question being placed on the ballot in November, asking voters if City Council should preserve the mansion at no cost to the City. Despite being asked to recuse herself on grounds of bias, Ald. Rainey refused to do so.

While a woman who was speaking in favor of overruling the objections to placing the Referendum question on the ballot, Ald. Rainey got up from the judges’ table at the front of the room and walked to the back of the room where Ms. Keenan was sitting. Ms. Keenan said Ald. Rainey waived papers in her face and said, “F— You.” A video shows that Ald. Rainey then walked out of the hearing room for a period of time.

 Each of the objections to placing the Referendum question on the ballot was overruled by the panel of judges.

Ald. Rainey admitted at the Oct. 22 hearing that she made the statement to Ms. Keenan. She said she made the statement because she had been attacked in the motion to recuse her.

After the hearing before the Election Board on Aug. 21, Ms. Keenan said she was standing in the hallway outside the hearing room and Ald. Rainey walked up to her and said, “Don’t mess with me” two times. A portion of the episode was recorded on video.

The complaint also alleged that Ald. Rainey forwarded emails opposing the demolition of the mansion to members of the Dunes Group and mocked the content of the emails.

On Sept. 5, the City Manager signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Dunes Group, signed by Nicole Kustok, Jeff Coney, William Stafford, Joseph Flanagan, Noreen Edwards and Charles Lewis on behalf of the Lewis-Sebring Foundation, relating to the demolition of Harley Clarke mansion. The group agreed to contribute $400,000 to pay the cost of demolition, plus additional amounts toward landscaping.

Mr. Levin, Ald. Rainey’s attorney, said Ald. Rainey did not receive any private benefit, and added that legislators have a right, and an obligation, to talk to residents of the City and to each other and they have a “right to advocate,” “to champion a project,” “to solicit support.” He said that is part of the legislative process. “There’s nothing wrong here,” he said.

All of the emails were sent and/or received on Ald. Rainey’s email account with the City. Mr. Levin said the City’s attorney instructed Aldermen to use their City emailing address when discussing matters relating to the City’s business.

The Ethics Board Ruling

Members of the Board of Ethics deliberated in open session for about one-and-a-half hours in reaching their decision. They considered the claims, the evidence, the language of the ethics code, and policies involved.

Chair Jennifer Billingsley recognized that elected officials, when they are acting in a legislative capacity, are expected to take a stand on sensitive and contentious issues, they are expected to be able to convince their peers and be persuasive, and are expected to gather information and discuss issues with their constituents. “That’s all part of the process,” she said. The issue is, “When does it cross the line.”

In reviewing the claim that Ald. Rainey performed her duties with partiality, Board Member Karena Bierman said, “This is where it really ties together for me. All of the things come together to show a lack of impartiality related to this issue. … This idea that there’s an appearance that this person is not taking all facts into consideration when voting on an issue. And that’s what we’re really talking about is: To the average citizen, do these things combined show that this particular alderperson was acting for the benefit of all constituents or only for the constituents that were in favor of this particular position. While we want to vote for someone to advocate on your behalf, you’d like to believe the better voice of reason would allow them to compromise or vote against something that would damage the rest of the constituents.”

Ms. Billingsley said, “All of the actions have undercut whether the people who are not adopting the same position as Ms. Rainey would feel she would give their side a fair hearing. Even if you are adopting a different position from someone, you still need to hear the other side out. … I do think there is a lack of impartiality and I don’t think it’s any one thing. I think it’s all of the things together.”

Board members raised other concerns as well.

Ms. Bierman moved that “the mocking of a constituent, the use of City email for fundraising, the use of City mail to advocate, the use of profanity and aggressive language, the use of shared information otherwise requiring an FOIA request, the actively and disruptively avoiding alternative viewpoints while in a voting position and maintaining a voting position in light of the above described activities all combine to give the appearance of a conflict of interest and lack of impartiality that we expect under the City of Evanston Code of Ethics relating to pending legislative issues and find that Alderman Rainey violated Section 1-10-4(c)(1). The motion was approved 4-0, with Ms. Billingsley, Ms. Bierman, Elizabeth Gustafson, and LJ Ellul voting yes. Board member Vincent Thomas was absent.

The Board also decided, 4-0, that Ald. Rainey violated the Abuse of Power section of the Code of Ethics, and that she did not violate the provisions of the Code of Ethics dealing with Prohibited Political Activities and Representing Private Interests Before City Bodies or Courts.

In resolving a second complaint that was filed by Nancy Sreenan against Ald. Rainey, the Board found that Ald. Rainey violated Section 1-10-4(c)(1) by disparaging emails sent to her by Ms. Sreenan.

The Board is expected to enter written decisions at its next scheduled meeting.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...