Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration may have violated political hiring rules when it brought Joanna Klonsky into the Mayor’s Office as a pro bono policy consultant beginning in 2019. Klonsky continued to be paid by Lightfoot’s political action committee (PAC) for more than a year after she began working for the Mayor’s Office.
A source familiar with Klonsky’s contract told the Weekly that Lightfoot’s campaign paid Klonsky $8,000 per month while Klonsky worked for the Mayor’s Office, long after the campaign had concluded. The Weekly confirmed via the nonprofit watchdog Illinois Sunshine that Lightfoot’s political action committee, Light PAC, began making monthly payments of $8,000 to Klonsky’s consulting firm in January 2020 and continued to do so through at least September of this year.
Why the mayor’s political action committee continued paying Klonsky’s firm despite the fact that she was consulting for the Mayor’s Office is unclear.
Klonsky, a media consultant whose former client list includes numerous Illinois and Chicago politicians, started working for Lightfoot’s campaign during the 2019 mayoral election as a paid senior political advisor. With her help, Lightfoot won the election, and Klonsky was reported by the Tribune to have stayed on as a member of the mayor’s transition team. When the transition team was officially disbanded on Lightfoot’s first day in office, Klonsky continued working alongside Lightfoot in the new administration, and was brought into complex policy conversations from the start. But the administration apparently violated hiring rules by failing to obtain the necessary approval for Klonsky to work for the City.
Chicago’s Hiring Plan—its rules for hiring City employees—resulted from a lawsuit originally filed in 1969, Michael L. Shakman v. Democratic Organization of Cook County. The lawsuit challenged the Democratic machine’s entrenched culture of political patronage, and over the ensuing decades, a series of federal consent decrees, known as the Shakman Decrees, placed Chicago and Cook County under federal oversight and mandated the creation of a thorough plan for preventing the over-influence of politics in hiring. In 2014, Chicago was freed from federal oversight, and the responsibility fell upon the Office of the Inspector General, which remains the City’s watchdog for Shakman compliance.
Hiring former campaign operatives to help run a new administration isn’t at all uncommon—and the Shakman decrees allow for that. But often such hires come with more rules and more documentation, and often require formal exemptions that require approval from the city’s oversight agencies.
While the City’s Hiring Plan doesn’t require a Shakman exemption for contractors, rules for hiring them are clear: City contractors cannot be hired for political reasons. A spokesperson for the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) told the Weekly there is “no distinguishable difference” between consultants and contractors, adding that OIG considers consultants to be “personal service contractor[s].” In its watchdog role, OIG requires all consultants to obtain written pre-approvals from both the Department of Human Relations (DHR) and Office of the Inspector General prior to being hired. Public-records requests the Weekly submitted to the DHR and the Mayor’s Office turned up no records of any pre-approvals of Klonsky’s hiring from either office.
The Hiring Plan is explicit in stating that contractors must be truly independent of the City and not act as employees of the City. There are fourteen different criteria to test if a contractor is employee-like in the Plan. Criteria include: the extent of direction by City employees to the contractor’s work, similarity of work to work done by existing employees, the nature of the work, whether the work is highly specialized, the location of the work, how hours are determined and so on.
Not all fourteen criteria are used in deciding whether a contractor is an employee, but taken together, it’s difficult to see how Klonsky’s work was much different from that of a City employee.
The person who spoke to the Weekly said that consultants typically offer expert guidance on principles of governance, but that if Klonsky was directing communications personnel or other City employees, that would indicate she was a City employee, not a contractor.
Lightfoot has come under fire for her hiring choices before. On her second day in office, the Tribune revealed the mayor’s head of security was married to a City lobbyist for ComEd. In 2019, the Tribune likewise reported that the Mayor’s Office apparently violated the requirement that City employees live in Chicago when it brought on Lisa Schneider-Fabes, who lives in Wilmette, in a volunteer role. Schneider-Fabes, who served as the manager of Lightfoot’s transition team, was hired by World Business Forum, a nonprofit partially funded by tax dollars and chaired by the mayor, the Tribune reported.
During Klonsky’s first three weeks in the Mayor’s Office in late May and early June 2019, there was apparently no documentation to make her role with the City official. It’s unclear how the City designated her role under the Hiring Plan, but she still contributed a significant amount of policy and communications work to the Office of the Mayor. Email records show that in those three weeks, Klonsky sent an average of twelve emails every day to Mayor’s Office staffers, media, and other recipients from a Gmail address.
On June 6, 2019, the Office of the Mayor received a Freedom of Information Act request from the Tribune for, “the full list of the names of everyone currently employed by the Mayor’s Office, their start dates and salaries. Please also list anyone employed in the mayors [sic] office through a contract as a special advisor or any other contract job.”
On June 10, 2019, Celia Meza, who was then Lightfoot’s counsel and senior ethics advisor, sent Klonsky a “consultant agreement” to sign, which Klonsky would return the next day, June 11. Before signing the agreement, Klonsky was effectively indistinguishable from a City employee. The contract was written with language that attempts to back-date them by “retroactively memorializ[ing]” the work she did for the Mayor’s Office before it was signed.
The Mayor’s Office did not include Klonsky on the list of volunteers they provided to the Tribune on June 20, 2019, despite Klonsky already having signed the consultant agreement nine days earlier (after the Mayor’s Office received the Tribune’s request, but before they fulfilled it) and had already begun working for the Mayor’s Office before then. It’s unclear whether the investigation by the Tribune prompted the writing of Klonsky’s contract.
After Klonsky’s first contract expired in 2020, she continued to work for the Mayor’s Office under no contract for three months. Many of last year’s protests happened during those three months, and she played a key role in the City’s communication strategy to the public and creation of policy.
Records the Weekly obtained via public-records requests for emails between Klonsky’s Gmail address and mayoral staffers show a sliver of her communication and policy approach during the 2020 protests. Most emails that involve any discussion of policy are mostly or entirely redacted, but they indicate that Klonsky was also consistently a primary point of contact in the Lightfoot administration for press and elected officials.
Klonsky’s contract appears to have been carefully worded to comply with the letter of the Hiring Plan by avoiding calling her a volunteer contractor—terms that are included in the Hiring Plan—instead referring to her as “pro bono” and a “consultant.” The Hiring Plan has rules regarding work done by “volunteers” and “contractors,” but not for pro bono consultants. City contracts typically also use “volunteer” and “contractor,” not the language used in Klonsky’s contract.
It is unclear why the City’s normal contractual language wasn’t used in Klonsky’s case. The Mayor’s Office responded to the Weekly’s questions with a single sentence that reiterated the contract’s awkward imprecision: “Joanna Klonsky is a pro bono consultant to the Mayor’s Office.”
When the Weekly reached out to Klonsky with clarifying questions about her contract, she referred us to the Mayor’s Office. Klonsky likewise did not respond to an email inquiring about outside contracts she had, with Lightfoot’s campaign or otherwise, during her time volunteering—or, as the Mayor’s Office prefers, consulting pro bono—for the City.
Matt Chapman is a freelance journalist in Chicago who focuses on issues of transparency and policing. This is his first piece for the Weekly.