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County employees face new travel crackdown

Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter

Cook County employees must receive permission for any travel expenses they plan to bill to taxpayers, according to a new edict.

The policy comes on the heels of a Chicago Sun-Times report detailing how a highway department employee was paid for driving 1,000 miles he never really drove.

According to a memo obtained by the Sun-Times, county chief of staff James Whigham enacted the new rule just a day after the newspaper began asking about Allen Back's mileage expense sheets.

A 2005 memo shows highway department personnel supervisor William Krystyniak -- a former alderman -- reported "irregularities" in two of Back's mileage sheets.

Those irregularities, the memo to highway superintendent Wally Kos said, qualified as "major cause infractions," punishable by suspension or termination.

But Back was never punished, asked to pay anything back to the county and, he said last week, no one even talked to him about it.

That lack of follow-up is now being investigated by the county.

Commissioner Tony Peraica said it's part of a broader problem with extravagant travel expenses, while Commissioner Forrest Claypool said it's part of a pattern in county government where "politically connected employees are rarely called to account for their misdeeds. No matter what they do, they seem to get a pass."

But Whigham, operating county government in the absence of ailing Board President John Stroger, said the new policy is an effort "to ensure accountability."

Sun-Times story attracted attention

"We need to establish criteria outlining the benefit to Cook County and the need for it," he said of requests for travel.

Whigham's policy says travel "that is not directly integral" to job responsibilities "is not authorized."

The ban extends to conferences and seminars that don't have prior approval by Whigham, adding the county won't approve reimbursements without prior approval.

Taxi and parking fees for county meetings, it adds, will no longer be reimbursed.

The county also will "randomly examine mileage reimbursement requests for reasonableness," Whigham's memo says.

Tuesday, among several budget transfers, the highway department requested extra money for employee travel -- something that department has done every year at least since 2002, records show.

Additionally, the department has hired 13 people since January, in spite of a years-long hiring freeze Stroger said in 2004 could only be lifted for critical positions.

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