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Of the many allegations leveled against Chicago Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin in recent months, none strikes us as more serious than the controversy surrounding her dealings with BMO, Chicago’s second largest bank by deposits.
A recent Tribune story, following on the original Tribune-reported revelations of two former staffers who alleged Conyears-Ervin forced them to do personal errands for her on taxpayer-funded time, offered more information on her separate push to get BMO to make a loan to the pastor of the church she and her husband, Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, attend.
In the months after her 2019 election as treasurer, Conyears-Ervin sought and got a meeting with Dave Casper, then U.S. CEO of BMO, and Mary Kenney, then the bank’s head of U.S. public affairs. The subject: the Rev. Johnny Miller, pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church on the West Side, wanted to refinance a loan for the property housing the church and a community center. Could BMO take a look?
These sorts of ethically challenged requests from local pols weren’t the usual meetings in which Casper, who retired earlier this year as U.S. chief executive for Canadian banking giant BMO Financial Group, was involved. He was running a multistate bank with more than $100 billion in assets.
That didn’t stop Conyears-Ervin. At the end of the day, to its credit, BMO didn’t make the loan despite the less-than-subtle pressure exerted by the city official whose office deals more with banks than any other unit of Chicago government. BMO, formerly BMO Harris and before that the storied Harris Trust & Savings Bank, has held city deposits for decades.
Conyears-Ervin, didn’t answer the Tribune’s questions about the BMO meeting herself. A spokesperson offered a statement defending the action as merely making an introduction for the pastor. That was “the sole intent and extent of the treasurer’s involvement.”
There’s no evidence that Conyears-Ervin threatened to pull those deposits from BMO if the bank didn’t help out her longtime pastor. But that’s hardly necessary for this to be wildly inappropriate.
The city treasurer has no business asking banks of any kind — especially those to which the city already has business ties — to lend money to friends or other associates. Asking for a meeting with the CEO underscored how serious her request was, regardless of how gently the information was relayed.
In the Tribune’s story, Miller, the pastor, says he didn’t ask Conyears-Ervin for the help. But in the next breath, he emphasized how much a cheaper loan from BMO would have meant to his operation, which had seen its existing property loan sold to a company that has no stake in the relationship — and charges accordingly.
“If BMO had done us a favor or anything like that, we wouldn’t be paying $34,000 a month now,” Miller told the Tribune.
“A favor or anything like that.” Says it all, really.
Conyears-Ervin was “making the introduction” on behalf of the pastor, who was looking for a favor. And a bank that had held deposits for the city for decades, working with many treasurers before this one, was put in a highly uncomfortable spot.
Needless to say, that’s not how banks are supposed to operate. Their job is to assess the creditworthiness of a would-be borrower and decide whether to lend money and at what rate. We’re not naive enough to think personal relationships never enter into the equation. Of course they do; all banks want to engender community goodwill.
But the last person in Chicago to be knocking on the doors of a big bank and vouching for a pal is the city’s treasurer.
Oh, and did we forget to mention? The Rev. Miller is landlord to Jason Ervin’s aldermanic office. It’s not clear that information even was provided to BMO when Conyears-Ervin met with Casper and Kenney.
The city’s Board of Ethics just days ago concluded there was probable cause to find that Conyears-Ervin violated Chicago’s ethics code when she fired two staffers after they raised internal concerns about her actions. That followed an investigation by the city’s inspector general, which isn’t yet public.
This is all bad enough to raise questions about whether Conyears-Ervin ought to continue as city treasurer, a post she’s held since 2019. She won a new four-year term earlier this year.
But there’s more. Just months after she cruised to reelection, Conyears-Ervin announced she would challenge longtime U.S. Rep. Danny Davis in the 7th Congressional District primary in March.
We wrote nearly a month ago that she’d failed a fundamental prerequisite for running for higher office — provide substantive answers about these allegations. To date, what she’s done mainly is to proffer general assertions of her integrity. The city, under former Mayor Lori Lightfoot, struck an unusual settlement with the two initial whistleblowers that forbade the two from talking about their experiences in her office.
At this point, the drip-drip-drip of details and new allegations makes Conyears-Ervin’s fading ambitions for higher office the least of her problems. The Tribune just reported charges from a third former employee that Conyears-Ervin and her husband offered senior citizens free hams for which they had to sign their names. The former employee claimed that the seniors didn’t know they were signing petitions to put two candidates for state representative posts on the ballot.
That, allegedly, was the price of those “free” hams.
We’re now past whether Conyears-Ervin is fit to serve in Congress. It’s time to talk about whether she’s fit to remain in her present post.