School Board Members, District Official Questioned Over Emails
Nov 11, 2014 06:28PM
● By Steven Jack
From left: Brian Graves, Bill Walsh and Brent Lightfoot
UPDATED AT 7:50 A.M. THURSDAY NOV. 13
Communications Director Brian Graves told the Aurora Beacon news he proofread the re-election documents exchanged between he and board members Bill Walsh and Brent Lightfoot for errors, which he said is his standard practice for many documents released regarding the district.
“The district was not going to be in the position where we sent anything to promote a candidate,” Graves told the Beacon. “I was just proofing for accuracy and that was it.”
A string of email messages between two Oswego School District 308 School Board members up for re-election in April and the district’s communication’s director has led another School Board member to question whether a district employee was improperly working on campaign documents for the two.
School Board member Matt Bauman Monday night questioned the email string with the subject line “Re-election press release” between Board President Bill Walsh, board member Brent Lightfoot and district Communications Director Brian Graves. The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Only Oswego.
In the emails that date back to Sept. 8, biographical information is exchanged between Graves, Walsh and Lightfoot with Graves asking the board members to edit the documents. Graves also asks Lightfoot for a "statement" that he plans to “pollish” before sending out with photos.
One week later on Sept. 15, Lightfoot emailed Graves, asking whether the releases were ever sent out, as he had not seen anything in that week’s paper. At that point, Graves asks Lightfoot to call him on the telephone for an explanation.
Also, on Sept. 15, Graves emailed Lightfoot and Walsh what he described as “press releases” and “photos.”
While the district’s FOIA response includes the photos, the attachments of the press releases are missing.
In their response to the FOIA request, the district said certain documents were withheld under Illinois statute that allows drafts of documents to be withheld. Only Oswego is currently appealing that decision with the Illinois Attorney General's Office.
The following day, Lightfoot emailed Graves saying he had spoken to Walsh, and asked for Graves’ media contacts, as he intended to “send out my own stuff.”
Graves responded to Lightfoot’s email with a list of local media outlets with corresponding email addresses.
Graves never sent re-election press releases to local media outlets for either Lightfoot or Walsh. Both independently emailed their official announcements to local media on Sept. 21 and 22 respectively.
At Monday night’s board meeting Bauman questioned whether Graves had worked on campaign material for Walsh and Lightfoot.
“Is he working as a personal secretary for us while we run for office?” Bauman asked. “… I think there were lines that were crossed that shouldn’t have been crossed.”
Illinois law prohibits public employees from intentionally taking part in political activity during compensated time.
Superintendent Matthew Wendt said he had discussed the FOIA request with the district attorney Maureen Lemon. Wendt said he also questioned Graves, and that he was certain nothing improper had taken place.
“I’m 100 percent confident that (Graves) told me the truth,” Wendt said.
Wendt also said he believed that no board policy had been broken with the emails.
“But is it illegal?” asked Board Member Alison Swanson, whose seat is also up for re-election in April.
Wendt said that was a question for Lemon.
“That’s outside the scope of the FOIA and the discussions about that,” Lemon responded.
Contacted Tuesday for comment, Lightfoot was able to shed some light on why the biographical information was exchanged with Graves in September.
“I was asked to provide a bio to be used as part of a story about the election,” Lightfoot said in an emailed statement. “That article was not distributed so I wrote and sent out my own press release.”
When asked for further clarification on the matter, Graves referred to Monday night’s meeting.
"Dr. Wendt addressed this issue by responding to questions during the (Nov. 10) Board of Education meeting,” Graves wrote in an email. “He has confirmed with me that School District 308 has no further comment.”
Also at Monday night’s meeting, Walsh insisted that the biographical information exchanged with Graves was merely an effort to correct information that appears with Walsh’s photo and contact information on the District 308 website. Walsh said Graves never worked on his campaign press release, and the only work Graves provided him regarding his campaign announcement was the forwarding of a profile photo.