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Stroger calls for probe of job funds
Grant money may have been spent on employee party

Friday, June 03, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by John McCormick, Jeff Coen,Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County prosecutors are investigating allegations that at least $180,000 in federal grant money was stolen or misappropriated from a county jobs training program.

Cook County Board President John Stroger announced Thursday that he requested a criminal review in May, amid an ongoing internal review that began in March.

Sources with knowledge of the criminal investigation said a review of documents and financial records shows money from the program may have been spent on a summer party for employees, T-shirts for a parade and other inappropriate expenditures.

Stroger said a "financial officer" who has worked for the county for 10 years was suspended without pay about a month ago, pending results of the investigation. He did not identify the employee and said more than one individual may have been involved. He also acknowledged that the total of misspent money could be more than $180,000.

The money in question was withdrawn from a bank account for the President's Office of Employment Training (POET), a federally funded employment program under Stroger's direct control that serves low-income communities in suburban Cook County.

"It ruins my day when I have to deal with this type of situation," said Stroger, who summoned reporters to his office to make the announcement.

John Gorman, a spokesman for the state's attorney, said the office is reviewing information provided by Stroger's office.

County officials said they thought the bank account had been closed as part of a program reorganization, but discovered an employee had subsequently authorized requests for checks from another account and deposited them into the account in question.

County Auditor Laura Burman said dozens of withdrawals were made in the form of cash or cashier's checks between 2001 and early 2005. Stroger said they appeared to violate county policy requiring two signatures for withdrawals.

Burman said her office was still trying to determine how the money was spent.

"Some may turn out to be related to the POET program," she said. "But there may also be some that were not spent for anything related to the POET program--personal expenditures."

In one case, Burman said, it appeared that federal funds were used to pay for T-shirts for people marching in the annual Bud Billiken Day Parade on the South Side.

A source with knowledge of the criminal investigation said that in another instance $13,000 was spent at a downtown hotel for a "Christmas in July" employee party.

County Board member Mike Quigley, a potential candidate for board president next year, suggested Stroger was revealing the investigation to soften criticism of his administration.

"Where are our internal safeguards?" Quigley asked.

Stroger bristled when asked whether taxpayers should be concerned about the county's fiscal controls. "We are always trying to monitor these things," he said. "We just want to bring this thing out."

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