Under orders from then-Chancellor Wayne Watson, the PBS television station at City Colleges of Chicago used its budget to produce free videos of powerful politicians and friends of the chancellor, an internal college e-mail shows.
The political programs, dating between 2002 and 2006, spawned a state ethics investigation and figure into a new federal lawsuit that alleges the publicly funded WYCC television station violated the terms of its government grant funding and broke federal tax rules for charities.
When the station's former manager complained about the political projects, she was fired, according to the lawsuit.
The political programs showcased golf events, a fundraiser and a "State Senate California Trip" in connection with then-State Senate President Emil Jones. Then-Ald. Todd Stroger and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, among others, also were featured in programs.
Though the PBS station's money was used to produce the videos, they were never aired, the e-mail says.
Watson says he is aware of the ethics investigation, but has not been interviewed by state officials.
“I would need to read or look at this thing, and of course because this is something that is litigious, I cannot comment on it,” he says.
Bernetta Bush, the district's ethics officer, confirmed the state's Office of the Executive Inspector General had opened an investigation.
Gilbert Jimenez, deputy inspector general at the Office of the Executive Inspector General, could neither confirm nor deny that, citing state laws that require confidentiality.
The Daily News learned of the investigation from a July 15 internal e-mail titled "Meeting regarding Ethics Report." The e-mail was sent by LaDonna Perry, who works in the ethics office, to WYCC's general manager and to a college vice president who oversees the station at Kennedy-King College.
The e-mail highlights more than a half-dozen issues and criticisms contained in an "Ethics Report."
The report lists at least 15 programs that were never broadcast and were allegedly "distributed only to friends and associates of the Chancellor."
The programs showcasing Jones included “Emil Jones fundraiser,” “Emil Jones State Senate California Trip,” "Emil Jones St. Francis Hospital" and four editions of "Emil Jones Golf Promo."
Other programs included “Jesse Jackson Birthday Party" in 2006 and “Todd Stroger Registration Event” in 2004.
Stroger is now the Cook County Board President. Jones no longer serves in the state Senate. Neither Jones nor Stroger could be reached for comment.
“The Report argues that WYCC resources were frequently used to consistently aid one political candidate and one political party, giving the appearance that the purpose of such work was for something other than CCC’s mission,” the conclusion of the internal e-mail reads.
The e-mail also mentions Maria Moore, the former WYCC general manager who took issue with the Chancellor's request "to have WYCC assist with filming the Jesse Jackson birthday video …"
Moore sued the City Colleges in federal court last week, saying that she was fired in 2007 after she voiced concerns about the television station being used for political ends.
“Each time Dr. Moore complained to Chancellor Watson that his directives to utilize WYCC-TV’s resources to benefit Chancellor Watson and his personal friends, political allies, and elected officials were improper and in violation of the terms and conditions of the federal and state grants received by City Colleges, Chancellor Watson threatened to fire her for insubordination if she refused to follow his orders,” the lawsuit says.
Denise Quimby, who is Moore’s attorney, says the allegations in the lawsuit are part of a larger culture at the City Colleges that “demands absolute loyalty.”
“There is essentially a standard operating procedure in place at City Colleges so people who speak up and speak about things the powers that be don’t want to hear, they are retaliated against, they are terminated,” Quimby says.
Moore is now a communications instructor at Illinois State University in Normal.
Moore’s lawsuit makes broad mention of programs benefiting Jones, Jackson and other politicians. And asserted that since WYCC used grants to pay for that work, the station was violating the terms of those grants.
"These activities included the filming of partisan political candidates and related activities which violated the terms of the government grants received by City Colleges as well as the Internal Revenue Code provisions governing charitable organizatons," the lawsuit says.
Last year, WYCC got $865,000 in federal grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and $116,000 from the Illinois Arts Council, according to budget documents.
Alex Shapiro, a director at the Illinois Arts Council, says the agency is unaware of the allegations in Moore's lawsuit or the state investigation, but confirmed that in general, state funds can’t be used for political purposes.
“If any grantee is found to have used state funds inappropriately, the Council would initiate action to have the funds returned,” Shapiro said in an e-mail.
Watson allegedly retaliated against Moore by excluding her from meetings, pursuing an audit of her expenses, conducting a one-time performance review after four years on the job and assigning her tasks with unrealistic deadlines, the lawsuit says.
“Each time Dr. Moore voiced her concerns to Chancellor Watson, he told her ‘I’ve heard your concerns. You’re wrong, I’m not asking you to do anything unethical. Do what I tell you to do or I’ll have you fired for insubordination,’” the lawsuit reads.
Finally, the lawsuit says, she was fired in late 2007 after she was denied a medical leave, even though she had a letter from her doctor.
Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.