The chief of food services at Chicago Public Schools and two members of her staff have received tens of thousands of dollars in improper gifts from the district’s two largest food vendors since 2007, a serious violation of the district’s ethics code, according to an investigation by CPS Inspector General James Sullivan.
The Tribune reported earlier this week that the inspector general was investigating whether a high-ranking CPS employee received a vendor’s skybox tickets at two Green Bay Packers home games in 2008 and 2009, including the night Packers legend Brett Favre returned as a member of the rival Minnesota Vikings.
The report identifies the employee as Louise Esaian, the district’s head of Nutrition Support Services. According to the report, Esaian admitted receiving tickets for herself and at least seven family members and friends. The estimated value for the seats, meals and other concessions was as high as $22,000.
The inspector general’s report reveals at least $86,000 in questionable gifts to Esaian and members of her staff, including dinners at pricey Chicago restaurants, birthday presents and other items from high-ranking executives at Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality and Preferred Meals Systems, companies that have combined food contracts at CPS totaling $75 million.
The alleged gifts include:
• Candy, liquor and flowers for Esaian’s birthday
• A $250 gift certificate for a spa treatment at Macy’s
• A $140 etched crystal hologram of Esaian’s parents
• At least $100 on a Packers jersey and other football memorabilia
The investigation also found 143 purchases on Esaian’s CPS-owned credit card for dinners and drinks that may have included representatives from either Chartwells or Preferred.
Esaian, who earned $147,000 last year as the top-ranking official in food services at CPS, manages contracts with food vendors and oversees the bidding process. According to the report, she told Sullivan she was aware of the district’s ethics policies, which restrict CPS employees from accepting gifts worth more than $50 from businesses that contract with the district. But she said she did not believe the dinners and gifts crossed the line.
Sullivan’s report does not accuse Esaian of criminal wrongdoing because there is not evidence that the gifts influenced Esaian’s decisions. But Sullivan does call for the district to take disciplinary action against Esaian and two lower-ranking CPS employees who accepted meals from the food vendors.
“The Chicago Public Schools takes any alleged violation of the Code of Ethics very seriously and appropriate corrective actions will be taken in the immediate future,” said district spokeswoman Becky Carroll.
According to the report, Esaian said she had friendly relationships with officials at both Chartwells and Perferred and that she didn’t report these gifts on her ethics disclosure statement, as required, because she thought these were personal meetings paid for with personal credit cards.
Although the report called these “serious ethical” breeches, Esaian said the gifts were not an attempt to buy favor with the district and said they did not influence the bidding.
Many of the gifts allegedly came directly from Bob Bloomer, a Chartwells regional vice president who oversees the company’s contract with CPS. Bloomer told Sullivan that it was his job to make his clients happy and that Esaian never turned down an offer for a free meal or drink, the report stated.
Bob Bloomer, reached by phone today, declined to comment. Ayde Lyons, a Chartwells spokeswoman in New York, said the company had not yet received the report and would not comment.
Art Bell, a senior executive vice president of sales at Preferred, told Sullivan that he’s been friends with Esaian for 25 years and that the two previously worked together at another company before Esaian was hired by CPS. Bell and Rufus Stephens, who oversees the CPS contract for Preferred, are alleged to have spent lavishly on Esaian and purchased dozens of meals for her at various restaurants.
Preferred spokesman Ken Trantowski also declined to answer questions about the report and did not make Bell or Stephens available for comment.
Instead, the company released this statement: “It is a Preferred Meal Systems corporate policy not to comment on any ongoing or completed investigations involving Preferred Meal Systems customers or employees. For the record, Preferred Meal Systems permits its executives to conduct business-related lunch or dinner meetings with customers throughout the year.”
Chartwells, a division of the global food distributor Compass Group Inc., won its first food service contract with CPS in 2000 and last May inked a new $53.2 million deal to provide food in more than 400 CPS schools. Preferred, which has a 40-year relationship with CPS, had its $24 million contract renewed last June.
Around the time Esaian joined CPS in 2007, Chartwells launched a pilot program to provide free breakfasts to students inside the classroom at a city elementary school. Four years later, the program had grown to serve 199 public elementary schools in Chicago.
To help build momentum for the program, Chartwells made donations of $1,000 to any school that implemented the free breakfast program during the pilot period, Esaian told the Tribune in an interview last year. Esaian said she was in talks with Chartwells about increased school donations as the program headed toward a district-wide expansion for the 2011-12 school year.
In a presentation to the school board in January, Esaian credited the breakfast program with improving the “intellectual, emotional, social and physical development” of school children from low-income families. With Esaian’s strong support, the board unanimously approved expanding the breakfast program across the district, a move that increased Chartwells’ contract with CPS by about $10 million.