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Sheahan hung tough on bumpy ride

Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times

For years Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan has had a sideline job, working as a Big Ten football official every fall. A former supervisor said Sheahan is admired as a referee because he is decisive but modest, calling no undue attention to himself on the playing field. The same could be said for his time as Cook County sheriff. Sheahan has worked hard over the last 15 years to clean up an office mired by corruption and scandal.

It was a surprise to many that Sheahan decided to leave his job at this time. The Cook County sheriff has always been considered a plum job for a local politician, offering a decent salary, oversight of thousands of employees and management of a multimillion-dollar budget. It had been expected Sheahan would sit in the sheriff's seat for many years to come.

But the sheriff's job is also one of the most politically sensitive county jobs: Overseeing a crowded jail that is grossly understaffed, policing unincorporated areas and being responsible for the security in county court buildings. When Sheahan first won election as sheriff in 1990, he assumed the reins of an office that had fallen into ill repute. Sheahan's two immediate predecessors, Richard Elrod and James O'Grady, had been less than scrupulous guardians of the public good.

When O'Grady took over from Elrod in 1986, he had promised to end the moral corrosion that had colored Elrod's tenure. But his administration was even more besmirched by scandal. Two top aides were convicted of bribery. The director of personnel received kickbacks and other favors for hiring unqualified deputies. O'Grady lasted only four years in office before a disgusted public turfed him out in favor of Sheahan.

Sheahan had some early successes in office, trying to relieve overcrowding in the jail, creating a boot camp for young offenders, setting up a task force to fight child sexual abuse, expanding emergency 911 service to unincorporated areas of the county and trying to cleanse his department of the corruption left behind by O'Grady's administration by firing ghost payrollers and ending a much criticized part-time deputy program.

But his office had a number of setbacks: the strip-searching of women who had been cleared of criminal charges and were leaving the jail; the failure to respond decisively when five of his officers illegally chased an African-American couple who had attended a Sheahan fund-raiser, and allegedly covering up the beating of 49 inmates by jail guards. But Sheahan's department was working under extreme conditions: The jail was dangerously overcrowded, with a higher inmate-to-officer ratio than any other big city jail in the United States, and there were severe budget constraints.

In the end, Sheahan is to be more congratulated than criticized for his record of achievement in the sheriff's job.

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