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'Independent' Hearing Officer's law firm booking $1 million or more per year from CPS

Above: Hearing Officer Respicio Vazquez during the hearing on the proposed closing of South Chicago Elementary School on January 29, 2009. Vazquez tells parents, teachers, students and others that he was selected to be an "independent hearing officer" by the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools on January 5, 2009 at the beginning of each hearing this year. Vazquez does not mention that the law firm of which he is a partner is the largest outside legal contractor receiving legal work from the Chicago Board of Education. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. When is a conflict of interest not a conflict of interest?

In Chicago, that's apparently when one is an "independent" hearing officer for the Chicago Board of Education while being a partner in the law firms that gets the greatest amount of outside legal fees from the Board of Education.

"Our hearing officer, Mr. Respicio F. Vazquez, is a partner in the law firm of Franczek Radelet & Rose P.C.." noted Whittier Elementary School teacher and CORE activist Norine Gutekanst following the hearings on January 29, 2009, on the proposed closings of South Chicago, Peabody, and Carpenter elementary schools.

"The Franczek firm represents the Board in many legal matters," Gutekanst continued. "According to the Franczek website, the firm: [now known as] Franczek Radelet & Rose P.C. concentrates on representing management, both private and public, in all aspects of labor and employment law, as well as offering unsurpassed depth in education law."

After the hearing on South Chicago Elementary School closing, I took the microphone, identified myself as a reporter for Substance newspaper, and asked Mr. Vazquez two questions.

"Are you still a partner in the Franczek law firm?" was the first question.

"Yes," was the answer Respicio Vazquez gave.

"And did you identify yourself at the beginning of this hearing to these people as an independent hearing officer?"

"Yes," was Vazquez's answer.

I then asked him whether the name of the firm (which was previously -- and for years -- "Franczek Sullivan PC") had recently been changed, and he answered that it had been changed. The firm is now known as "Franczek, Radelet & Rose P.C.", Vazquez said.

The last time the Chicago Board of Education approved a retention to the Franczek law firm was at the Board meeting on October 22, 2008. According to Board Report 08-1022-AR2 ("Authorize continued retention of the law firm Franczek Sullivan P.C."), the Board agreed to pay the firm $250,000 for continued work for CPS. "The General Counsel has continued retention of the law firm Franczek Sullivan, P.C. The firm provides legal services to the Board for general litigation, labor negotiations, consulting, and stretgegy developments," the Board Report stated. "Additional authorization for the firm's services is required in the amount of $250,000. As invoices are received, they will be reviewed by the General Counsel and, if satisfactory, processed for payment."

Board Report 08-1022-AR2 was signed by General Counsel (CPS) Patrick Rocks and approved unanimously and without debate by a vote of the Chicago Board of Education on October 22, 2008. During the previous four years, the Franczek law firm has never received less than half a million dollars per year for its outside counsel to CPS. The Chicago Board of Education also has a Law Department which employes between 40 and 50 lawyers working out of the Seventh Floor at 125 S. Clark St. Since Mayor Daley took over the school system in 1995, the number of lawyers working at the CPS Law Department has more than doubled.

"So in reality our 'Independent Hearing Officer' is far from independent," Gutekanst continued. "Here is his resume from Franczek website. Respicio F. Vazquez (Partner) born Chicago, Illinois, August 19, 1960; admitted to bar, 1986, Illinois. Education: DePaul University (B.S.C., Business Administration, 1982; J.D., 1985). General Counsel, Illinois State Board of Education, 2000-2004. State Superintendent of Education, Illinois, 2002. Former General Counsel and Former First Assistant General Counsel, City Colleges of Chicago. Fomer Assistant Attorney, Chicago Board of Education. Special Assistant Attorney General and Former Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Illinois Attorney General . Member: Illinois State Bar Association. Languages: Spanish. Practice Areas: Education; Government."

Vazquez served as hearing officer at all three hearings on January 29, 2009 (South Chicago; Peabody; Carpenter). He also served as a hearing officer on several of the school closings and turnarounds during the 2007-2008 school year, according to Board documents. 

JANUARY 30, 2009. UPDATE: Above: Michael Hernandez presiding over the hearing on the closing of Princeton Elementary School in Chicago at the Chicago Board of Education's headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. in Chicago on January 30, 2009. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.. Second hearing officer also partner in Franczek law firm. On January 30, 2009, a second hearing officer for the current round of hearings on the fate of more than 20 Chicago public schools confirmed that he, too, is a partner in the law firm of Franczek Radelet & Rose P.C. Michael Hernandez told Substance that the did not know how much annual business his firm gets from the Chicago Board of Education and stated that he considered himself an independent hearing officer. Hernandez had just presided over the hearing on the proposed closing of Princeton elementary school at the time he discussed these matters with Substance. A search of the CPS Web site could not locate any information on how the Chicago Board of Education determined whether a hearing officer was "independent." There is also no evidence that these jobs have ever been advertised or bid from among the more than 10,000 attorneys working in Chicago and Cook County. 

THE COMPLETE TEXT -- WITH ALL GRAPHICS AND A REPORT ON THE TOTAL AMOUNT OF DOLLARS CPS APPROVED FOR PAYMENT TO THE FRANCZEK LAW FIRM DURING THE PAST 24 MONTHS -- OF THIS ARTICLE WILL BE PUBLISHED IN THE FEBRUARY 2009 PRINT EDITION OF SUBSTANCE. THE PRINT EDITION WILL BE MAILED TO ALL SUBSCRIBERS ON FEBRUARY 17, 2009.



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