Louise Esaian, chief of food services for Chicago Public Schools since 2007, and two of her staff are accused of accepting gifts to recommend and promote contracts at CPS schools. The two businesses involved are Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality and Preferred Meals Systems.
Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality launched a pilot program to provide free breakfasts to students at a single city elementary school when Ms. Esaian took over as chief. By 2011 the program had spread to 199 public schools and she urged the school board to expand it districtwide. Despite parental opposition, her recommendation was approved and the contract with Chartwells grew another $10 million.
The combined food contracts of the companies concerned run in excess of $75 million — and now the three staffers stand accused of accepting gifts worth at least $86,000.
Esaian told the inspector general that the gifts didn’t influence her decisions at CPS, according to the report, which came out last week. But the appearance of conflict in such situations is inescapable, said Laurence Msall, president of the government watchdog Civic Federation.
The inspector general’s report says that while the contract extensions were being considered, Esaian was being wined and dined at expensive restaurants, given NFL tickets and other ‘birthday’ gifts. Despite the district’s ethics policy prohibiting CPS employees from accepting gifts over $50 of value from businesses that contract with the district, and Esaian acknowledging that she was aware of the policy, she doesn’t believe the gifts crossed the line.
The report does not accuse the trio of criminal wrongdoing as there is no direct evidence that the companies benefited from the gifts or access, but it does call for disciplinary action and greater oversight plus controls in the future.
“Even if it only affects the appearance of the procurement, it has a corrosive impact on the public’s trust and the perception of how government decisions are made,” Msall said. “These ethics codes exist because too often governmental officials are confused about what is in the public’s interest and what is in their private interests.”
These are not the first accusations of corruption in the Chicago Schools system, with the recent focus being on alleged nepotism by school board members.