Ex-Mayor Lightfoot was warned about email electioneering 10 months before campaign tried to recruit CPS students

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CHICAGO — Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign was told to stop electioneering to city employees nearly a year before her staff tried to recruit Chicago Public Schools students to do political work for extra credit, newly released records show.

When it came to light in January, Lightfoot’s camp first defended but then quickly denounced the practice of sending emails to public workers soliciting campaign help. Now it’s emerged that her campaign had been warned by the city Board of Ethics in March 2022 to cease sending political communications to public employee emails.

Days after WTTW-Ch. 11 first reported on the Lightfoot campaign’s practices, Chicago Inspector General Deborah Witzburg emailed Lightfoot directly to ask her to stop her campaign from further electioneering and cited the ethics board’s previous letter.

“On March 15, 2022, BOE sent a letter via certified mail to Lightfoot for Chicago’s Chair, Treasurer, and Custodian, with a copy hand-delivered to your City Hall office,” Witzburg wrote in the email, released by the mayor’s office in response to a broader request seeking Lightfoot’s January emails. “In that letter, BOE advised that your campaign immediately cease sending electioneering communications to city of Chicago employees at their city email addresses and purge such email addresses from campaign email lists.”

Despite the warning, Witzburg wrote, the inspector general had accumulated evidence “that this practice has continued at a significant scale for months after BOE’s March 2022 letter, with your campaign continuing to send electioneering emails to city employees at their city email addresses, as well as to sister agencies’ employees.”

Steve Berlin, the Board of Ethics executive director, declined to comment, as did the inspector general’s office.

“The Lightfoot campaign email list included hundreds of thousands of email addresses, with new recipients subscribing daily,” a Lightfoot spokeswoman said. “As we have previously stated, the campaign made regular good-faith efforts to scrub the list of any city government email addresses.”

Controversy over the Lightfoot campaign’s email policies was a headache for the mayor leading up to her Feb. 28 election defeat. Brandon Johnson, the eventual winner of the contest, was sworn in Monday.

The story emerged after Lightfoot’s campaign emailed CPS teachers in January asking them to help recruit students for her reelection campaign in exchange for class credit. The mayor apologized for the emails, calling them a “mistake” while downplaying them as an error in judgment by a staffer.

Last August, Lightfoot’s campaign also contacted City Colleges of Chicago educators to recruit students. The City Colleges, which make up a city of Chicago sister agency controlled by the mayor, released a statement in January saying it had told the Lightfoot campaign that they do not “coordinate with political campaigns.”

City Colleges also said it notified “the campaign of CCC’s ethics policy and purged the emails from CCC accounts.” Lightfoot said her campaign had no “written” communication from City Colleges.

Witzburg’s email shows the Lightfoot campaign had been put on notice about using government emails in political activity much earlier than was previously known.