Chicago treasurer accused of misconduct and ethical violations in letter city kept secret for years

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City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin used government workers to plan her daughter’s birthday party and be her personal bodyguard while she also pressured public employees to hold events benefiting political allies and repeatedly misused taxpayer resources, two former top aides alleged in a recently released letter the city fought for years to keep confidential.

The blistering four-page letter, written in December 2020 by the attorney for the two employees Conyears-Ervin fired, also alleged the treasurer, who oversees city investments, tried 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 Conyears-Ervin’s husband, Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th.

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,” the letter stated.

After Conyears-Ervin in 2020 dismissed the employees, Ashley Evans and Tiffany Harper shared a $100,000 settlement from the city. That settlement came after the letter was sent to the city’s top attorney and the city’s Board of Ethics.

The Chicago Tribune sought a copy of the letter but the Tribune was repeatedly denied access by the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who became a political ally of Conyears-Ervin and her husband. After the Illinois attorney general’s office last year said in a binding opinion that the Tribune should get a copy of the letter, Lightfoot’s administration went to court to block its release. But Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration released the letter late last week.

A former state representative who earlier this year was reelected to a second term as city treasurer, Conyears-Ervin has said she is considering a run for Congress to replace U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.

Conyears-Ervin declined to address any of the specific allegations in the letter and instead issued a statement late last week that said the city settled the allegations two years ago “in the most cost effective manner for the citizens of Chicago.”

“While I am not allowed to discuss the specifics of this settlement, I will make a general statement as I take these matters seriously,” the treasurer said in the statement, released by a spokesman. “I have never, nor will I ever abuse or misuse taxpayer dollars and breach the public trust. I treat my responsibility to the citizens and taxpayers with the utmost respect.”

The controversy dates back to November 2020, when Conyears-Ervin dismissed Harper, her chief of staff at the time, as well as Evans and two other workers, as part of what she called an office shake-up. Harper and Evans, the treasurer’s former chief impact officer, alleged their firings “violated the Illinois whistleblower act, federal laws, and a city ordinance,” and sent the letter to the city demanding reinstatement.

Their attorney, Michael Kanovitz, did not return a message seeking comment.

The letter disputed Conyears-Ervin’s claim that she fired the workers because she was taking the treasurer’s office in a new direction.

“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.”

In the letter, dated Dec. 9, 2020, Kanovitz called on city officials to initiate an investigation into why the women were let go.

“Treasurer Conyears-Ervin engaged in a pattern of disturbing conduct against the public trust, many of which violated the City of Chicago ethics rules as well as state and federal law,” the letter stated. “Her consistent and pervasive practice has been to misuse City money, City employees and City resources to benefit her private interests as well as those of her friends and campaign supporters.”

One of the complaints detailed in the letter was staffers’ concerns about Conyears-Ervin’s decision to hire an ex-Chicago police officer as her private security guard and driver after Lightfoot took away her police detail.

“After losing a public battle with the Mayor on this issue, the Treasurer hired an ex-CPD officer to fill the opening of Assistant to City Treasurer, a job that requires financial training and experience which the candidate was utterly lacking,” the letter said. “This employee does not provide any services to the office and does not even come into the office. Rather he serves as a private armed security guard to the Treasurer and is her driver.”

In a previous interview with the Tribune, Conyears-Ervin said she needed a police detail due to her position. “I cannot tell you how many places I go to where people say, ‘Give me a loan, that’s the money lady, can you write me a check?’” Conyears-Ervin said. “People truly associate me with money. … I’ve had people, when I walk in the room, they say, ‘Money, money, money — money.’”

The letter also took issue with Conyears-Ervin for hiring Gina Zuccaro to be an administrative assistant, a post Zuccaro was not qualified for, according to the letter. Zuccaro is a political ally of both Conyears-Ervin and her husband, and she has filed objections to block rival candidates from appearing on the ballot against Jason Ervin. Zuccaro also ran for state representative in 2020, losing to Jawaharial Williams, who is the son of Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th.

In the letter, the two former employees alleged that rather than fulfilling the duties of that role full-time, the treasurer used Zuccaro “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.”

Zuccaro did not return repeated messages for comment.

The two former aides also alleged Conyears-Ervin made “contentious demands of City contractors to benefit the Treasurer’s friends and political supporters.”

“One example was the Treasurer’s attempts to force BMO Harris, one of the City’s depository institutions and securities brokers, to give a mortgage to a third party on a building in which her husband maintains his aldermanic office,” the letter stated. “To use the Treasurer’s words, the instruction was to ‘leverage’ the City’s banking relationship (meaning the fact that the City maintains hundreds of millions of dollars in deposits) to get a mortgage on the building.”

A spokesman from BMO Harris declined to comment last week. Ald. Jason Ervin also declined to comment through a spokesman.

Conyears-Ervin also used “City resources to advance the agenda of several churches and other religious organizations, many of which support her and her husband … politically and turn out church members to vote for their respective campaigns,” the letter said.

Those events included a “panel and praise” series of events, where she hand-picked pastors to highlight, and a “Back to School Citywide Prayer.”

Staffers told Conyears-Ervin she could not “spend City money to promote religion,” but she “not only refused to stop the events but also insisted that she could handpick the prayer leaders (including her political supporters) rather than open the opportunity to all faiths, justifying it by saying that she wanted religious leaders who preached consistently with the Christian Bible.”

When Evans and Harper warned Conyears-Ervin not to engage in the activities detailed in the letter, the treasurer ignored the two women and worse, the letter stated.

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.

“The retaliation is clear, as is the corruption in the Treasurer’s office,” the letter stated.

Following the firings, the Tribune sought from the city a copy of the letter through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, but city officials under Lightfoot refused. The mayor and Conyears-Ervin had mended their disagreement after the mayor took away the treasurer’s security detail.

After being denied the letter, the Tribune appealed to the attorney general office’s public access counselor and won both a nonbinding decision and later a binding opinion that stated the city should release the letter. But the city still refused, arguing the letter from the fired workers’ attorney was part of privileged settlement negotiations and exempt under the Freedom of Information Act as well as prohibited from release by various courtroom rules of evidentiary and discovery in legal actions.

The Lightfoot administration then took the case to court to block the binding opinion from being enforced. But after Lightfoot lost her bid for reelection earlier this year, the Johnson administration was responsible for the future of the case and last week chose to drop it.

“The City is committed to making our records available to the public to the fullest extent possible, consistent with the laws and regulations governing FOIA,” a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department said in a statement.

“We are pleased the city is releasing the records as recommended by the public access counselor,” added a spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office.