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State probes juvenile center
Allegations of fraud at facility surface

Friday, December 16, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo and Ofelia Casillas

Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan has subpoenaed documents related to whistle-blower allegations of payroll and contract fraud at Cook County's troubled Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

The facility, which houses 450 juveniles, has been hit with allegations of abuse and mismanagement in recent months, but the probe by Madigan appears to open a new front.

According to the Dec. 5 subpoena, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune, the investigation is being conducted under the state's civil whistle-blower act. The probe "concerns allegations of a scheme to defraud Cook County, the State of Illinois and the United States of America through the submission of false and fraudulent payroll documents, grant applications and requests for payment."

The subpoena requires Cook County to turn over documents related to the center's funding sources, payroll, grant applications and other materials by Jan 20.

"We're cooperating fully with the attorney general's office," said Caryn Stancik, spokeswoman for County Board President John Stroger, who controls the center. Stancik declined to comment further Thursday.

It was unclear how the attorney general's office received the allegations that prompted the investigation. Whistle-blower allegations are sometimes contained in civil lawsuits that can be filed under seal, and at times federal or state authorities may get involved when public money is at stake.

Melissa Merz, spokeswoman for Madigan, said the office will not comment on subpoenas or investigations.

But in a Nov. 22 letter instructing the superintendent of the juvenile center to preserve documents, the attorney general's office said the office is investigating "allegations of rampant improper conduct by employees and supervisors. ...

"The allegations relate to, among other things, kickbacks demanded by [juvenile center] staff from outside vendors, falsification of time cards and overtime records, kickbacks demanded and paid for overtime, `ghost' payrolling ... and the hiring and promotion of unqualified, poorly trained and dangerous workers," the letter states.

The five-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Tribune, also seeks the personnel files of 16 current and former employees as well as documents related to programs that operated in the facility.

One of those programs is the Music Theatre Workshop, a non-profit performing arts organization.

Meade Palidofsky, the group's artistic director, said the detention center is rife with political infighting but her organization has worked to keep the focus on helping the children detained there.

"What's happened to us in the past is money they had for programming has ended up going elsewhere. ... So there was no money for programs," Palidofsky said. "We try to stay as far away as possible from the political stuff that happens there because it's a mess."

The American Civil Liberties Union has alleged in a federal lawsuit that the center is a violent place where children, and sometimes staff, abuse children.

Cook County has denied the ACLU's allegations and a hearing could be held in federal court as soon as next month.

ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf said his group encourages any action that sheds light on the facility's problems.

"Obviously when you've got the chronic problems of management that the facility has had for so many years, it's not completely surprising that there would be allegations about financial improprieties," Wolf said.

Also Thursday, a divided committee of Cook County commissioners rejected a proposal to appoint an independent manager to oversee reforms at the facility.

Sitting in the audience during the debate was state Assistant Atty. Gen. Christopher McClellan, who signed the subpoena seeking documents. He declined to answer questions.

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