Ethics board finds probable cause Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin wrongfully fired 2 whistleblowers

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Chicago Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin violated the city’s ethics code by firing two top aides who alleged she repeatedly misused taxpayer resources and pressured public employees to help her political allies, according to a finding of probable cause by the city’s Board of Ethics.

The ethics board made the determination Monday after a closed-door meeting where city officials reviewed findings from Inspector General Deborah Witzburg. In keeping with its rules, the ethics board did not name Conyears-Ervin, but the Tribune has identified her as the subject of the board’s ruling.

Over the coming months, Conyears-Ervin will have a chance to rebut the findings before the board issues a final ruling and potentially a fine. Her office had no comment on the matter Tuesday.

Monday’s findings follow internal complaints by several now-former employees of the treasurer’s office who accused Conyears-Ervin of ethical lapses or misusing public resources for her private benefit. While many of the allegations were made years ago, they weren’t detailed publicly until recent Tribune reports.

The allegations filed by the two top Conyears-Ervin aides date to November 2020, when the city treasurer dismissed her chief of staff, Tiffany Harper, and other top aides as part of what she called an office shake-up.

The Tribune first reported in September that Harper and another high-ranking employee, Ashley Evans, alleged they were retaliated against and fired after reporting Conyears-Ervin engaged in a series of unethical and illegal acts. Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration used city funds to pay the two women a $100,000 settlement and then fought for roughly two years to conceal the details of their whistleblower complaint. Brandon Johnson released the information to the Tribune after taking over as mayor.

In its record of the vote, the ethics board said it found “probable cause to conclude that a city official wrongfully terminated the employment of two city employees.”

Harper and Evans, who had been the treasurer’s chief impact officer, contended in a December 2020 letter that Conyears-Ervin used a staffer to plan her daughter’s birthday party and another employee to be her bodyguard. They also outlined broad allegations that Conyears-Ervin repeatedly misused taxpayer resources and pressured public employees to help her political allies.

In addition, Harper and Evans alleged Conyears-Ervin attempted to force BMO Harris — one of the banks where city money is deposited — to issue a mortgage tied to the building that houses the aldermanic office for the treasurer’s husband, Ald. Jason Ervin. The landlord is also a longtime family friend of the couple who told the Tribune he used to drive Conyears-Ervin to school when she was growing up.

The letter was not made public until the city dropped a legal effort to prevent its disclosure that was started under Lightfoot. Less than a week later after the Tribune received a copy from Johnson’s administration, the head of the Chicago Board of Ethics said the board had referred the case to the city’s inspector general’s office but that the board couldn’t do more unless it received detailed findings from the IG.

Witzburg declined to comment at the time. Investigators with the inspector general’s office later seized computers from the treasurer’s City Hall offices without saying why.

In the December 2020 letter, the aides also said Conyears-Ervin threatened retaliation against employees who raised concerns about the conduct and other alleged misdeeds and told employees they “should not care if her plans are illegal since the only way they could lose their jobs is if she fires them.”

Before they were fired, the letter stated, Conyears-Ervin threatened the women with retaliation and warned them that if they refused to implement her plans their “asses can walk” and that they “will be walking the f--- up out of here” and that “this is (her) f---ing office and (her) vision,” according to the letter.

Conyears-Ervin told the women she was firing them because of a change in administration, which their lawyer said was false.

“The reason given for firing them was a pretext as there was no change in administration (the Treasurer took office over a year prior) and neither Ms. Evans nor Ms. Harper had done anything remotely justifying their termination,” the letter said. “They are precisely the sort of employees the City seeks to hire and retain, not terminate.”

The two alleged Conyears-Ervin used Gina Zuccaro, a treasurer’s office employee who ran for state representative as part of a slate pushed by the Ervins, “for personal services like running errands, planning her daughter’s birthday party, grocery shopping and the like.”

“The Treasurer also used City resources to support Ms. Zuccaro’s run for the … Illinois House of Representatives seat by allowing her to campaign on City time,” the letter stated. “This misuse of hiring to obtain personal services and favor her allies is a pervasive problem, extending well past these two employees to numerous other employees and contractors.”

For her part, Conyears-Ervin has defended asking BMO Bank to help her family friend. Conyears-Ervin has also denied having public employees run personal errands for her while they were on duty but declined to address whether they did work for her on their personal time.

A third former employee filed a complaint with the inspector general’s office in summer 2021 alleging they were forced to attend an event where seniors signed political petitions to receive a free ham. It’s unclear whether city officials took action over that worker’s complaints.