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Stroger takes donations from county watchdogs

Monday, January 23, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter

Their jobs are to conduct independent investigations into claims of corruption within Cook County government.

But Cook County's inspector general, auditor and ethics director have poured thousands of dollars into board President John Stroger's political campaign funds, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned.

Additionally, employees within these offices have contributed even more to Stroger's campaigns -- raising questions about their ability to lead objective investigations.

"Can you imagine if [city Inspector General] David Hoffman was contributing thousands of dollars to Mayor Daley?" asked Jay Stewart of the Better Government Association. "Everyone, including those thinking about bringing a complaint to him, would understand quite well what that means."

Individual contributions

But records indicate that neither Hoffman nor his predecessor, Alexander Vroustouris, ever made campaign donations to Daley. The same goes for city ethics director Dorothy Eng.

Likewise, state Inspector General James Wright, his predecessor, Zaldwaynaka Scott, and state ethics director David Keahl have not contributed to Gov. Blagojevich, records show.

But Cook County Inspector General Joseph Price and his predecessor, James Whigham, have given Stroger a combined $4,610.

Auditor Laura Burman has contributed $2,630 to Stroger.

Ethics director Jennifer Vidis has given $160 to Stroger's 8th Ward organization -- on top of donations she has made to political groups which then poured almost $40,000 into the campaign funds of assorted county officials.

Daley's example

Additionally, county ethics investigator April Williams, who lives in Stroger's ward, has given his campaign $980, while deputy inspector general Cornelius Spencer has given him $600.

Though the county ethics policy specifically tells employees to avoid "even the appearance" of a conflict of interest, Stroger said it does not specifically prohibit anyone from giving to his campaign.

Spokesman John Gibson said Stroger, "as a result of his impressive legacy of achievement, enjoys a broad base of support," including support from his employees. Gibson added that Stroger sees no conflict of interest in the contributions.

Stroger's office would not let a reporter interview Price, Burman and Vidis.

Price's job is to investigate claims of fraud and corruption. Burman combs through financial records to guard against theft and misappropriations. Vidis reviews allegations of improper influence and conflicts of interest.

Stewart -- who last week revealed that more than half of Stroger's campaign contributions come from county employees or contractors -- called the findings "startling" and said the conflict of interest is glaring.

He said Stroger should follow Daley's lead and refuse contributions from employees, as "with millions of dollars in his campaign account, he can afford to turn aside a few thousand dollars."

Stroger criticized a BGA board member for making political contributions, but wouldn't speak beyond Gibson's statement.

The BGA has been critical of Stroger's internal investigative offices, saying they're ineffective.

Budget records show that while Daley is boosting Hoffman's budget from $2.8 million to $3.5 million and filling 15 office vacancies, Stroger has cut the budgets of his inspector general and others.

Change of heart

In 2004, the county inspector general had a $418,000 budget, but in 2006 it is set at $388,000.

The auditor had 27 jobs in 2002, but is now budgeted for just 18, while the board of ethics is budgeted to conduct 24 ethics seminars for 480 employees this year down from 60 sessions for 1,800 employees last year.

When Price was appointed inspector general in 2004, he said to do his job effectively, he'd need to triple his staff.

Last week, he told county board members his five employees are enough.

"Everybody has tightened their belt," Stroger spokeswoman Caryn Stancik said. "They can do the job, but should requests for investigations increase, we can re-evaluate."

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