Investigators with Chicago’s inspector general seized computers from the treasurer’s City Hall offices last week as part of an investigation into allegations of misconduct against Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, the Tribune has learned.
The move by Inspector General Deborah Witzburg’s staff comes after the release late last month of a 2020 letter that laid out a series of accusations by two aides Conyears-Ervin had fired who said the treasurer misused taxpayer resources and abused the powers of her office.
It also comes after the head of the Chicago Board of Ethics last week said the agency referred the letter to the inspector general’s office years ago but said the board couldn’t do more unless it receives detailed findings from the IG.
Witzburg declined to comment. While the timing is notable, it’s not clear the investigative moves relate to the accusations laid out in the letter or a different set of issues.
Through a spokeswoman, Conyears-Ervin on Monday declined to address specific questions about the inspector general’s actions but promised to cooperate with the investigation.
“Treasurer Conyears-Ervin is proud to run an office that places the ethical stewardship of taxpayer dollars at the center of everything it does. While the allegations in question misrepresent the culture and work of both the Treasurer and the many hard working members of her team, the Treasurer takes any questions around misconduct with grave seriousness, and is looking forward to sharing her perspective on them with Ms. Witzburg’s team.”
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. She planned to announce her run earlier this month but has postponed her plans amid the controversy.
Questions about Conyears-Ervin’s conduct in office came to light after a yearslong battle for records by the Tribune, which first reported in 2020 that Conyears-Ervin fired four top aides and said it was part of her decision to take the office in a new direction.
Following the firings, a lawyer for two of the women who were fired sent the head of the city’s law department and the Board of Ethics the blistering four-page letter in December 2020. The letter claimed Conyears-Ervin used government workers for her own personal use, including to plan her daughter’s birthday party and to be her personal bodyguard, in addition to the general accusation that she repeatedly misused taxpayer resources and pressured public employees to help her political allies.
It 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. BMO officials have declined to comment.
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.
Under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city paid $100,000 to settle the claims by Tiffany Harper, who had worked as Conyears-Ervin’s chief of staff, and Ashley Evans, the treasurer’s former chief impact officer.
But Lightfoot’s administration refused to release the letter despite numerous requests by the Tribune and a binding opinion by the attorney general’s office that it should be released. Mayor Brandon Johnson dropped the city’s legal fight and released the letter.
The head of the Chicago Board of Ethics said last week that the board referred the case to the city’s inspector general’s office.
The Board of Ethics is hamstrung by a lack of investigative power and instead must rely on the IG’s office, which generally operates in secrecy until it releases quarterly reports. It has been almost three years since the letter was sent to the IG, which has not disclosed any findings.
Conyears-Ervin dismissed Harper, Evans and two other workers as part of what she called an office shake-up. Harper and Evans alleged their firings “violated the Illinois whistleblower act, federal laws, and a city ordinance,” and sent the letter to the city demanding reinstatement.
The letter disputed Conyears-Ervin’s claim 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.
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.
“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,” the letter said.
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.”
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.”