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A fraud on Cook County voters

Sunday, July 09, 2006
Chicago Tribune

For 117 days since he suffered a stroke, Cook County Board President John Stroger has been incommunicado, with aides and family members asserting that they are relaying his wishes. The record suggests that those surrogates have misled citizens about Stroger's health.

The plain goal of this unethical--if not illegal--fraud on voters and taxpayers is for Democratic politicos to keep control of the county patronage and contracts that cement their own power. The surrogates and politicos have exploited John Stroger, manipulating information about the infirmity of a man evidently unable to speak publicly for himself. They've said whatever they had to, first so a reform challenger wouldn't beat the impaired Stroger in a Democratic primary race, then to discourage any third-party candidate from running in the November general election.

In this, they succeeded. Several county commissioners are competing to finish Stroger's current term. But the county's Democratic committeemen will select Stroger's replacement on the November ballot. The committeemen's concerns will be patronage, contracts and power.

We don't know whether the charades of the past 117 days have deprived citizens of honest government services, or stretched election fraud statutes. We do hope federal, state and county prosecutors will address those two questions.

Here, then, are excerpts of the public record:

- March 15: One day after Stroger's stroke, his chief of staff, James Whigham, tells county commissioners there is "some improvement" in Stroger's condition but offers no details.

- March 17: A Tribune editorial urges Stroger's medical and political handlers to disclose his prognosis. That afternoon, neurologist Michael Kelly, director of the stroke service at Rush University Medical Center, says during a medical news conference: "This is a serious stroke. ... I don't think he's going to be able to come back from this to a baseline, normal state."

- March 20: With Stroger's son Ald. Todd Stroger (8th) at his side, Mayor Richard M. Daley joins a chorus of Democratic regulars urging primary voters to support the incumbent board president over reform challenger Forrest Claypool, Daley's former chief of staff. "John Stroger is alive and well," Daley says. "I'm supporting and voting for him. Let's be realistic--he's coming back."

- March 21: In the low-turnout primary, Democrats nominate John Stroger over Claypool by a tiny margin. Organization Democrats celebrate the defeat of Claypool's threat to the status quo.

- March 29: Todd Stroger says his father does exercises on the edge of his bed, sees visitors, recognizes people and speaks coherently: "He speaks in coherent sentences, and you can understand what he says."

- April 4: John Stroger is moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for therapy. His son calls the move "a great sign" adding, "Personally, I know he's getting better because he's getting impatient" about his recovery.

- May 3: Claypool asks at a County Board meeting whether "unelected bureaucrats are making critical, important decisions that should be made by elected officials as a matter of public policy."

Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, a Stroger loyalist chairing the meeting, doesn't ask Stroger administration officials to answer the question. Instead, Moreno says Stroger "has not been declared incapable of running this government." Whigham, Stroger's chief of staff, tells reporters Stroger is in charge of county government. Whigham says he met with Stroger for three hours a few days ago, but Whigham refuses to disclose what they talked about or even if it pertained to county business. Asked if he could name one county-related decision Stroger has made in his seven-week illness, Whigham says he could, but he refuses to say what it was. Whigham says there is a "transfer of information that occurs" when he visits Stroger.

- May 4: The Tribune reports that in a recent interview, Todd Stroger "said flatly that his father was not running the county government."

- May 5: Todd Stroger says a decision on his father's political future could come "probably sooner than July," adding, "If he decides to step aside, I think at this time in my life I would be interested in holding that position. I feel I have the experience in government in elective positions and as one of the workers" to do the job.

- May 18: A convoy of vehicles transports John Stroger via a serpentine route from the Rehabilitation Institute to a high-security condominium. On arrival, several men stand between Stroger's wheelchair and the building entrance to block photographers from taking pictures.

- May 24: Todd Stroger says his father may not decide on his political future until after July: "I will guarantee you this, that if John Stroger's going to run, he'll tell you. And if he's not going to run, he'll tell you. It won't be me."

- May 30: John Stroger is re-hospitalized. A day later, Todd Stroger won't name the hospital, but says that his father has not suffered a medical setback: "The doctors said he was fine."

- June 2: The Tribune reports that John Stroger is mentally aware but in more fragile physical condition than his family or county officials have revealed. Two sources say Stroger, 77, is still being fed through a tube, as he has since being stricken. He cannot stand or walk and has to be lifted from his wheelchair into his bed. He is unable to turn himself in bed and requires round-the-clock attention. Both sources say Stroger can communicate but appears very weak. Stroger spokeswoman Chinta Strausberg says Stroger is in charge of county government, and that Whigham meets with him regularly.

- June 6: County commissioners reject a proposal to hold a hearing on John Stroger's ability to serve. A Stroger ally, Ald. William Beavers (7th), tells reporters that Stroger is still running county government and is in better health than the media have reported. Beavers says he will meet regularly with Stroger and expects a decision "very shortly" on Stroger's plans.

"He said, `Beavers, we'll talk. ... I'll get back to you when we need to talk,'" Beavers says--adding that it is he who will speak for Stroger about Stroger's future. Whigham says he met with Stroger for two hours on June 2 to discuss county business, including labor negotiations and personnel vacancies: "I know he gives me orders, and I follow those orders. He gives me his take on issues, and I use that information to carry out my duties."

- June 10: Stroger friend Bishop Larry Trotter says Stroger has been re-hospitalized for a second time in 10 days. But Trotter says he recently spent an hour with Stroger and: "It was a sigh of relief for me. He was not as seriously ill as portrayed."

- June 14: Three months after the stroke, Todd Stroger won't discuss his father's health: "He's doing what you do in the hospital. That's all I can tell you. ... He's in the hospital because he needed to go. ... I think everyone knows when July comes, don't they? See me then."

- June 19: Strausberg won't say whether Whigham has visited with Stroger since June 8.

- June 20: Todd Stroger says his father is out of the hospital but won't answer other questions: "I think you can write a pretty good story just by me telling you that. That is all I've got is he is out of the hospital. ... That's all I can tell you."

- June 26: The deadline passes for third-party candidates to file nomination papers for all county offices.

- June 28: The Tribune reports that, on June 27, Beavers was disclosing to Democratic Party leaders a plan for John Stroger to step aside as the nominee and encourage committeemen to slate his son Todd in his place. Beavers reportedly is saying John Stroger will finish his current term as board president. That two-prong strategy would head off rivals such as U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and County Commissioner Bobbie Steele.

- June 28: Todd Stroger lays claim to his father's nomination. Asked if his father can finish his term, he tells reporters: "I don't know the answer to that question. I think that if he thinks he can finish his term, then so be it." Beavers tells reporters "there's enough votes" among Democratic committeemen for Todd Stroger to succeed his father. But when asked again if he has the votes lined up for Todd Stroger, Beavers says, "We're working on that right now, OK?"

- June 29: Beavers says that on June 30, Todd Stroger and Whigham will announce John Stroger's resignation as board president effective July 31. Beavers says John Stroger plans to keep his seat as one of 17 county commissioners.

- June 30: A long, eloquent, unsigned letter, purportedly written by John Stroger, states that he is ending his 36-year County Board career.

- July 4: The Chicago Sun-Times quotes County Clerk David Orr as saying he has "serious questions" about whether "misinformation was being intentionally provided" about John Stroger's health in order to beat back potential challengers. Beavers retorts "oh, hell no" and calls Orr, who is Cook County's top election official, "a little poop-butt. ... What does he care?"

- July 5: Todd Stroger produces a copy of the John Stroger resignation letter with a scrawled, illegible signature. "When you have a stroke, you have peaks and valleys," Todd Stroger says, "so when I thought he was at a peak, I asked him to sign the letter, and that is what he did today."

- July 7: Orr receives John Stroger's withdrawal of candidacy. The signature is almost perfect.

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