Documents uncovered by Project Six—along with limited and opaque answers from City Hall—raise serious questions over whether political clout allowed a veteran senior-level Chicago city employee to stay in his position for more than two weeks and collect thousands in salary after being terminated for cause.
The employee, Jonathan Friend, has held multiple positions for both the city and state, but most recently was senior advisor to Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia. Friend is also husband to one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s top political operatives, Becky Carroll.
The investigation into the end of Jonathan Friend’s tenure with the city was the result of an anonymous tip to Project Six that alleged Friend was terminated for misconduct. Despite multiple city officials, offices and agencies refusing to answer any questions surrounding this case, communications obtained through Freedom of Information requests between City Clerk’s Office employees and multiple city vendors show how potential conflicts of interest, inappropriate procurements for city contracts worth millions and tax dollar waste was possibly ignored to benefit political insiders with connections to Mayor Emanuel.
Ascension in city government
According to his city personnel file[i], Jonathan Friend began working for the City Clerk’s Office in 2011 as a deputy director to then-City Clerk Susana Mendoza. Prior to working for the clerk’s office, Friend held a number of positions in both city and state government, including the Chicago Park District, the Illinois Governor’s Office of Management and Budget and the Illinois Department of Transportation.
At the time of his termination from the City Clerk’s Office in February 2017, Friend was serving as senior advisor to the recently installed clerk, Anna Valencia, with a yearly salary of $114,000.
Valencia was sworn in as city clerk of Chicago on January 25, 2017, to replace the departing Mendoza, who had recently been elected Illinois comptroller. Friend stayed on with the City Clerk’s Office as it transitioned from Mendoza to Valencia. Numerous emails from the time period surrounding the transition indicate that Friend accepted an offer to continue to work under Valencia.[ii]
One of Friend’s major responsibilities in the City Clerk’s Office was being the point person for two agreements between the office and Clarity Partners. Clarity Partners is a technology and consulting vendor with numerous government contracts across the state, at the county and city level.[iii] In 2016, Clarity Partners had at least two agreements with the City Clerk’s Office that totaled over $1 million.[iv] Friend was the clerk’s project manager for both of these agreements. Friend was also part of the selection committee that chose Clarity Partners for these projects and was a signatory on both agreements.
In the documents Project Six was able to review, Friend had given no indication that he intended to leave the City Clerk’s Office. Yet, less than two weeks after discussing his new title with a vendor, Friend’s city network access was disabled, his access credentials with numerous vendors were shut off and he was removed from his position overseeing the Clarity Partners contracts.
A little over a week after that, Friend’s employment with the City Clerk’s Office was terminated.
In the span of less than a month, a high-level, five-year veteran of the City Clerk’s Office went from a brand-new position as senior advisor to the clerk, to terminated, yet no one seems willing to say why.
The City Clerk’s Office, Friend and Clarity Partners all declined to speak with Project Six about this report.
Emails from within the clerk’s office and Friend’s personnel file paint conflicting stories as to why and how Friend came to be terminated from the office. A review of the communications between executive-level employees at the clerk’s office strongly suggest that Friend was terminated for cause if not for outright misconduct.
On February 10, 2017, Friend’s access to the city employee network, including Friend’s city email account, were disabled at the order of Charles Watkins, Chief Administration & Finance Officer for the City Clerk’s Office.[v] Watkins also sent emails to two of the vendors Friend worked closely with, Clarity Partners and Sebis Direct, asking that they also disable Friend’s ability to access their respective systems.[vi]
Emails reveal that the plan to disable Friend’s access to the city network had been in place at least two days prior to the actual shutoff.[vii]
In addition to shutting off Friend’s access to Clarity Partners, Watkins also made clear to Clarity that Friend was no longer in a supervisory role, saying “[u]ntil I advise otherwise, communication and tasking on day-to-day help desk responses and related matters will continue to be coordinated by those currently identified City employees, excepting Jonathan Friend. Please refer contract, payment and other related matters to me.”[viii] Friend’s removal from the Clarity Partners contract is referenced in a number of FOIA’d communications.[ix]
The rapidness and extent of Friend’s access terminations appear to be typical moves an employer would take in anticipation of termination, or if some type of misconduct had taken place. Yet, while Friend’s disabled access to the city network and various vendor networks point to his likely termination, the activity that occurred in the hours and days afterward does not seem to line up with a typical termination—or even resignation—of a city employee.
Watkins sent the first communication discussing shutting off Friend’s access to the city network and email system on February 8. Friend’s access was not actually terminated until 3:15 p.m. on Friday, February 10. His access to Clarity Partners and Sebis Direct was terminated at roughly the same time.
Yet less than an hour and a half later, Watkins sent an email to the Department of Information and Technology, saying, “After some further internal OCC [Office of the City Clerk] communications, I’d like to request that [Friend’s] access to the City’s email system be restored. All other access should remain disabled.”[x] On Sunday, February 12, Friend’s access to the city network was restored.[xi]
There are no similar requests to restore Friend’s access to Clarity Partners or Sebis Direct.
Four days later, on February 16, 2017, Friend sent an email to city clerk employees implying he was voluntarily leaving the clerk’s office on February 28. “With both nostalgia for the past and excitement for what lies ahead, I share this news: my last day with the City of Chicago/Office of the City Clerk shall be Tuesday, February 28, 2017.”[xii] The email does not explicitly state Friend is resigning but reads much like a resignation letter.
However, niether this emailed “resignation” nor any other resignation letter appear in Friend’s personnel file. Instead, Friend’s personnel file contains a letter from Charles Watkins, dated February 21, informing Friend that “your employment with the City of Chicago, Department of the City Clerk will be terminated effective February 28, 2017.”[xiii]
Other city personnel files reviewed by Project Six show that it is unusual for an employee who voluntarily resigns to have a termination letter in their personnel file.
In the two weeks between February 10 and February 28, Friend was able to collect over $4,000 in salary from his city service.
Over the course of a month, Friend was seemingly fired, lost vendor and network access, but then allowed to remain on staff, collect two weeks of salary and “resign.”
February 1—Friend informs a vendor that he has been asked to stay on with newly installed Clerk Valencia under the title “Senior Advisor to the Clerk.”
February 8—Watkins requests Friend’s access to the city network and email system be shut off in two days, on February 10.
February 10—(3:15–4:30 p.m.) Friend’s access to the city network and email system, as well as his access to two vendors, Clarity Partners and Sebis Direct, is disabled. Watkins informs Clarity that Friend is no longer to participate in the Clarity contract.
February 10—(4:45 p.m.) Watkins asks that Friend’s city email, but not his network access, be restored.
February 12—Friend’s access to the city network is restored.
February 16—Friend writes a resignation-like email to his colleagues at the clerk’s office, citing February 28 as his last day.
February 21—The date of the termination letter in Friend’s personnel file, listing his last day as February 28.
February 28—Friend leaves city service.
Possible reasons for termination
The clerk’s office has refused to give any information that would help make sense of Friend’s unorthodox termination. Even when asked directly if Friend resigned or was terminated, the clerk’s only response was, “Jon Friend was instrumental in transitioning Clerk Valencia into her new role. Out of respect for the privacy of former employees, we do not discuss specific terms of departure from this office.”[xiv]
Clerk’s office materials Project Six obtained through FOIA suggest that Friend’s termination was the result of potentially serious misconduct.
Friend’s role on the procurement committee that awarded Clarity Partners a nearly $1 million contract in late 2015 may have violated the city’s conflict of interest statute. Records show that Friend’s wife, Becky Carroll, was a paid consultant, receiving up to $25,000, for one of the three bidders[xv] for the nearly $1 million contract.[xvi] The city prohibits city employees from making or participating in any decision if the employee has “any financial interest distinguishable from that of the general public.” A paid consulting relationship between Friend’s wife and one of the three bidders would seemingly constitute a distinguishable financial interest for Friend.
Emails from within the clerk’s office during Friend’s tenure also show how Friend was possibly providing Clarity Partners with internal work product from the clerk’s office. Specifically, one of Friend’s colleagues highlighted a draft “scope of work” that she completed at Friend’s request, which appeared nearly verbatim in a later “statement of work” submitted by Clarity.[xvii]
Also, during the same time period that Friend was terminated, numerous email conversations within the clerk’s office show concern over the unexpectedly high invoices being submitted by Clarity and the lack of detailed documentation accompany those invoices.[xviii] Internal clerk’s office documents also show how Friend was involved in improperly tasking Clarity with mundane work that should have been completed by internal clerk employees, increasing the clerk’s bill by thousands of dollars.[xix] The clerk’s office eventually demanded more detailed information and documentation concerning the work assigned and undertaken by Clarity.[xx]
Friend also appears to be working with Clarity Partners since leaving the clerks office which could potentially violate the city’s revolving door prohibition.[xxiii] When Project Six called Clarity and asked to speak with Friend they connected to Friend’s extension but Friend did not pick up or respond to repeated messages. Friend also appears in photos and social media posts on Clarity’s Facebook[xxi] and Twitter pages[xxii].
It’s possible that any one of these issues was the driving force behind Friend’s sudden termination. However, the limitations of FOIA, and the refusal of the clerk’s office to share additional information, make it difficult if not impossible to determine the role these issues played in Friend’s termination.
Friend and his wife’s connection to Mayor Emanuel give possible insight into why he was allowed to remain on the clerk’s payroll, with access to sensitive city data and resources, for at least two weeks after being effectively terminated.
Friend’s wife, Becky Carroll, is one of the most connected political consultants in Chicago, with strong ties to Emanuel. Carroll is CEO of Chicago Forward PAC, a super PAC formed to advocate for Emanuel and his agenda. Carroll’s been paid over $240,000 for this role since 2014.[xxiv] Carroll’s also held city positions under Emanuel, including acting as his eyes and ears as spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools.
Carroll has also turned political connections into lucrative city contracts. Through her consulting firm C-Strategies, Carroll managed to be controversially awarded a 2017 Midway Airport Concessions Agreement. Her part of the contract was reportedly worth a 2 percent stake in future airport concessions, estimated to be worth millions of dollars a year.
C-Strategies also appears on an Ameresco Inc. bid for the Chicago Smart Lighting Program, which is overseen by Emanuel’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust.[xxv]
Carroll also had a financial relationship with Clerk Valencia’s husband, Reyahd Kazmi, at the time of Friend’s termination. In March 2016 when Valencia was selected as Emanuel’s director of Legislative Counsel and Government Affairs, she transferred her political consulting company, AVK Advisors, to her husband. Kazmi began operating the company as Kazmi Advisors in September of that year and registered as a lobbyist in February 2017.[xxvi]
On November 21, 2016, approximately two months before Valencia was appointed as clerk, Kazmi Advisors was hired by C-Strategies to “provide relationship management and strategy services to help [C-Strategies] build relationships with key stakeholders … in support of C-Strategies’ customer projects.”[xxvii]
Carroll’s firm being a client of Valencia’s husband is a reversal from the normal course, where C-Strategies is hired as a consultant by politically connected companies. Here C-Strategies is paying a smaller, newer and less clouted company as a consultant. Carroll declined to comment on why one of the most connected political insiders in Chicago would need the services of an unknown, newly registered lobbyist.
When asked whether the mayor’s office or mayor himself stepped in after Friend’s termination to allow him to stay on for an additional two weeks the mayor’s office responded that, “The Mayor’s office has no involvement in personnel decisions made by the Clerk’s office.” Carroll and the clerk’s office declined to comment.
Without transparency, there cannot be meaningful accountability. Friend’s confusing termination and the city’s refusal to give any information surrounding it shows that Chicago city government still falls unacceptably short in committing to real transparency, leaving Chicagoans to simply hope that those who cross legal or ethical lines are held accountable.
Taxpayers deserve answers into whether the city’s contract with Clarity was procured properly, if tax dollars were wasted on menial tasks given to expensive contractors, if city information was put at risk by allowing a terminated public employee to have continued access to city resources and information, and if preferential treatment was given to political insiders and allies of the mayor.
When Mayor Emanuel first took office, he promised a new era of government transparency in Chicago. Unfortunately, almost every office and agency’s actions in Chicago prove what many Chicagoans already know: the new Chicago is very much the old Chicago, where clout and graft reign supreme.
[i] Reference Packet page 1
[ii] A week after Valencia was sworn in, Friend emailed a vendor of the clerk, saying, “Clerk Valencia asked me to stay on in the new administration, and I accepted, see signature for new title and phone numbers.” Friend signed the email as “Senior Advisor to the Clerk.” Less than a week letter, Friend emailed Valencia directly, saying, “I’m really warming up to this new role, and I really appreciate your patience and encouragement.”
[iv] Reference Packet page 4
[v] Reference Packet page 8
[vi] Reference Packet page 11
[vii] Reference Packet page 13
[viii] Reference Packet page 14
[ix] Reference Packet page 16
[x] Reference Packet page 18
[xi] Reference Packet page 19
[xii] Reference Packet page 20
[xiii] Reference Packet page 21
[xiv] Reference Packet page 22
[xv] Reference Packet. page 23
[xvii] Reference Packet page 25
[xviii] Reference Packet page 36
[xix] Reference Packet page 38
[xx] Reference Packet page 41
[xxi] https://www.facebook.com/ClarityPartnersLLC/photos/a.914418798574925.1073741827.152514004765412/2138837392799720/?type=3&theater Friend is the individual in the yellow sweater.
[xxii] https://twitter.com/ClarityPartners/status/822558573016268801 Friend is in the first row, third from the left.
[xxiii] Municipal Code of Chicago 2-156-100(b) permanently bars former city employees from assisting or representing any person in any business transaction involving the city or any of its agencies if the former had contract management authority in the subject matter of the transaction; therefore, Friend would be permanently barred from assisting Clarity Partners with any of the agreements that he acted as project manager for during his employment with the clerk.
This investigation abides by Project Six’s Guarantee of Quality Scholarship.