Board chair’s clients, law firm get business from City Colleges: BGA investigation

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Since being named chairman of the City Colleges board in March, Gery Chico has abstained from seven votes—all involving his law firm or clients doing business with the community college system, according to a review by the Better Government Association in partnership with Catalyst Chicago.

Since being named chairman of the City Colleges board in March, Gery Chico has abstained from seven votes—all involving his law firm or clients doing business with the community college system, according to a review by the Better Government Association in partnership with Catalyst Chicago.

The seven votes were taken during five board meetings.

Among the items that Chico opted not to vote on, according to records and interviews:

  • A $3.3 million agreement with F.H. Paschen, S.N. Nielsen to rip up and rebuild a parking lot at Olive-Harvey College, and construct a new campus road. The Chicago company is represented by Chico’s law firm, Chico & Nunes, P.C.
  • Legal bills involving Chico’s law firm, which has represented City Colleges on several matters over the past several years. Chico abstained twice on payments totaling $15,120 to his firm.
  • An agreement to pay AT&T up to $174,204 to provide Internet and “data communication lines” to a public television station affiliated with City Colleges. Chico’s law firm represents AT&T.
  • A $26,440 agreement with Primera Engineers, Ltd., to plan for the installation of an elevator at Harold Washington College. Chico & Nunes represents the Chicago engineering firm.

Interviewed after the Aug. 5 board meeting at which he abstained from a contract “renewal” with F.H. Paschen, Chico said his law firm stopped doing business with City Colleges when he was named chairman. Payments approved by the board after he took over the post were for past services, he said.

City Colleges has paid Chico & Nunes more than $260,000 for legal services—involving employment discrimination and contractual matters, among other things—since 2007, according to records and interviews.

Chico’s law partner, Marcus Nunes, insisted that the recusals won’t hamper Chico’s ability to get things done at City Colleges.

“Losing one vote is not really an impairment,” Nunes said.

And the abstentions are done in “an abundance of caution,” Nunes said. “Gery will abstain on a matter to avoid any perceived conflict of interest.”

He added that Chico was only directly involved in one matter between his firm and City Colleges before becoming chairman—a zoning issue. (Payments on that zoning matter were finalized at the May board meeting, Nunes said, and Chico abstained from voting on it.)

Nunes added: “When Gery is on the board, Gery himself and Chico & Nunes does not do [legal] work for the City Colleges. . . . We will not represent any clients in any matters involving City Colleges.”

The firm plans to continue to represent F.H. Paschen, AT&T and Primera. Nunes explained, “I don’t believe that Gery’s service on the board requires him to discontinue any work with those clients.”

Nunes said the firm should not be precluded from representing clients that do business with City Colleges. “As long as the proper safeguards are in place, and the abstention is noted so there is not an appearance of favoritism,” he added.

The contractors that Chico abstained over have done previous work with City Colleges, well before Chico’s arrival, according to records and interviews.

“Gery Chico has a long and admirable history of public service, but his private law business also has a long history of representing clients that get work from the government agencies he’s part of,” said BGA Executive Director Andy Shaw.

“While Gery has rightly abstained from voting on such matters since joining City Colleges—and before that at Chicago Public Schools, when he was board president—the BGA thinks it’s worth the City Colleges board revisiting the parameters of outside employment for trustees.”

Chico is a former chief of staff for Mayor Daley who served as school board president in Chicago from 1995 to 2001. During that tenure, a Chicago Tribune analysis found that Chico abstained from more than 400 votes.

The Tribune also found that clients of Chico’s then-law firm, Altheimer & Gray, and related companies reaped more than $577 million in Chicago Public Schools contracts during that time.

Asked whether he anticipates Chico’s abstentions being as voluminous as during his CPS tenure, Nunes said, “Given the nature and size of the City Colleges, I suspect that the number of abstentions will be significantly smaller.”

Since Jan. 1, 2008, just one other City Colleges board member has abstained from voting, and that was for a single item, according to records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Chico said the seven recusals were miniscule compared to the “hundreds” of items handled by the board since his appointment by Daley.

“If I had 47 . . . recusals already, I’d say that [you] have a point,” Chico said. “But three companies [aside from his law firm]? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

In recent weeks, Chico and the City Colleges chancellor, Cheryl Hyman, announced plans for big changes at the community college system, which includes seven colleges and more than 120,000 students, many of whom are graduates of Chicago Public Schools.

Since the system is spending about $30 million a year on basic remediation classes, City Colleges is considering ending its “open-door” admissions policy, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Daley voiced his support for raising the bar on admissions.       


This story was written by Joel Ebert of the Better Government Association, with assistance from Catalyst Chicago.