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County probe into padded mileage went unheeded

Monday, June 26, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter

Cook County Highway Department employee Allen Back reported he drove 720 work-related miles in his personal car between August and September in 2004.

But when county investigators checked the odometer on Back's Hyundai, they determined he had driven only 244 miles total during that time, an internal county memo obtained by the Sun-Times shows.

The memo and other investigative documents detail how Back was accused of tacking on a total of nearly 1,000 miles to his odometer in late 2004. But the county probe apparently fell on deaf ears, as officials never have disciplined Back or asked him to repay the county for the miles he allegedly overbilled.

The documents include a memo from highway personnel supervisor William Krystyniak, a former Chicago alderman, who wrote the "irregularities" would qualify as "major cause infractions" that county rules show would be punishable by suspension or termination. Krystyniak, however, did not follow up on the probe's findings.

'Nobody said anything'

Back, a 23-year county employee, said he was unaware his odometer was ever the subject of a county investigation. "Nobody's said anything to me about it," he said when reached last week at his Streamwood home.

Back, a former union steward, admitted he made some mistakes reporting his miles in 2004. He speculated that the reason he was singled out for odometer checks was that he's long been a thorn in the side of county management.

Back is a highway department engineering assistant, and his job includes checking county roads for potholes and logging lots of miles behind the wheel. The only time he recalled hearing about the miles he was reporting came last year, when a supervisor told him, "You're driving too much."

Since then, Back said, he's "cut way back. . . . But I'm supposed to drive, so it's a real Catch-22."

Records show Back, whose base salary is around $63,000, charges the county for mileage from the time he leaves his door and continues as he makes maintenance stops and checks roads.

$350 overbilled

At the 2004 reimbursement rate of 37.5 cents per mile, the allegedly fraudulent miles would have cost taxpayers about $350.

After the Sun-Times raised questions about Back's mileage reports, Krystyniak's assistant, Brien Comerford, confirmed the findings "warrant discipline" and confirmed that the documents the newspaper obtained were legitimate.

However, Comerford said the county could find no similar discrepancies throughout Back's sheets. Comerford said "the overwhelming majority of Back's vouchers are accurate," and said what happened in 2004 was "an isolated incident."

Nonetheless, county spokeswoman Chinta Strausberg said county officials would re-evaluate Back's status based on the Sun-Times inquiry. The county, she added, has instituted tougher checks of travel expenses since the findings, requiring regular odometer checks.

Still, records show that since 2002, the county highway department has exceeded its travel budget by tens of thousands of dollars.

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