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Chicagoans deserves to know who paid for protesters at school hearings

Updated: March 2, 2012 8:21AM

With all due respect to Sara Paretsky’s latest novel, the hottest mystery in Chicago right now is: “Who Paid for Those Rent-a-Protesters?”

I hope you’ve been following this one closely, because it may be the most delicious little whodunit since the never-solved mystery of who picked Angelo Torres to run the city’s Hired Truck Program.

It seems a select group of ministers have been providing human props by the busloads for public hearings in support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s school reform agenda — specifically his plans for a longer school day, school closings and “turnarounds.”

These “supporters” of the official Chicago Public Schools policy have been paid for their trouble with $25 the going rate and up to $50 for those who take speaking roles.

Our education reporter Rosalind Rossi was at the forefront of breaking the story, although I would also commend to your attention some illuminating work on the subject from WBEZ reporter Linda Lutton and WGN-TV producer Marsha Bartel.

It happened all right, as their stories plainly document.

The biggest question left is where the ministers got the money.

In this economy with poor folks hard up for cash, it probably wasn’t hard to find takers, and I can’t really blame anyone for grabbing the dough when they can look around and see millions of unrestricted dollars being pumped into our national political campaigns. Plus, I can’t argue it’s any less ethical for them to take $25 to pretend they believe in something than it is for some well-heeled “public affairs and communications firm” to take a million dollars to do the same.

Still, this strikes me as one of the most cynical political ploys we’ve seen — using people’s desperation to turn a community against each other in false disagreement and telling us it’s all “for the children” when it’s really just an effort to match fire with the Chicago Teachers Union.

That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate reasons to favor the mayor’s education agenda or oppose the union. But it shouldn’t necessitate paying folks to take his side.

What we need is a healthy discussion about the future direction of our schools, not one subverted by contrived community reaction.

At the moment, the spotlight is on the Rev. Roosevelt Watkins III, pastor at Bethlehem Star Church and CEO of the HOPE Organization, who has acknowledged his role in organizing and paying protesters, although he characterized their cash envelopes as “stipends” for training as community organizers.

Suspicion has quickly fallen on the millions of dollars in city and CPS contracts received by HOPE and some of Watkins’ allied ministers, but Watkins swears he didn’t use any of that money. Only “private money” was used, Watkins said.

I believe him.

As ham-handed as this maneuver has been, using taxpayer money to try to hoodwink the taxpayers would probably constitute a criminal act, and I doubt the individuals behind this were that stupid.

Rather, I think they are just the same sort of shy, bashful rich types who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into last year’s aldermanic elections “for the good of the city,” but used a loophole to avoid disclosing their names.

Whoever is financing the ministers would seem to have cover here, too. Churches don’t have to disclose their private donors.

But as one street-smart fellow with knowledge of this dirty business told me Tuesday, “I guarantee you it’s not members of the church” who put up the cash.

The Emanuel administration is seeking cover behind a promised investigation by CPS Inspector General James Sullivan, but that probably will lead nowhere if it is confirmed public dollars were not used.

The only way this information is going to come out is if the community demands it come out.

This city has a long history of men of the cloth being used to run interference for the ruling administration. To enjoy the benefits of being on the mayor’s team, they have to be willing to sing for their supper.

This would be a great time for some of those who aren’t on the current team to find their voice.

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