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Grieving, Cook County style

Thursday, March 31, 2005
Chicago Tribune

The lead story in Saturday's Tribune made a remarkable disclosure: The African-American woman Cook County officials thought was running a politically connected firm--it's the minority subcontractor in a big county telephone deal--died on Jan. 23, 2004.

This isn't merely one more proof that Cook County routinely mismanages the public's business. It's also grounds to ask whether the county's outreach to minority- and women-owned businesses needs a massive overhaul.

The alleged failure of Crucial Communications LLC to notify the county of a major change in its operations raises many questions. Starting with: How, exactly, did this outfit become part of this lucrative telephone deal? Who does run Crucial? And shouldn't the Cook County administration have more closely monitored one of its minority subcontractors--at least enough to know that, 14 months ago, the firm's chief operating officer went to her eternal reward?

County taxpayers, through their elected officials, try to spread public business equitably by earmarking portions of many deals for minority- and women-owned companies. In fairness to other such firms, companies that win contracts must in fact be owned and run by minorities or women--and they must notify the county of major changes in their operations.

As when, presumably, the COO is dead.

Crucial is the minority subcontractor in a multimillion-dollar, multiyear deal that gives SBC Illinois the right to operate inmate phones at the County Jail and pay phones in county facilities. Crucial is owned by Jabir Herbert Muhammad, who the city alleges used a separate firm, Crucial Inc., as a minority front for businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko in the operation of two Panda Express restaurants at O'Hare International Airport. Muhammad has been seriously ill for three years. Rezko is a key adviser to Gov. Rod Blagojevich. All that's certain beyond this is that, until recently, the county evidently thought an African-American woman was managing Crucial Communications.

We can't judge-and-jury the details of whether Crucial met its legal obligations to a somnolent Cook County government. We do hope an independent voice answers that question, pronto.

Cook County Board member Michael Quigley stepped up this week with what sounds like an excellent reform proposal: that the county outsource the oversight and eligibility certification of minority- and women-owned businesses to an independent firm. Quigley argues that the county's current program does too little to expand local markets for many of these firms: "Time and again we see that lucrative contracts and subcontracts are going to a small cast of inside players getting more than their fair share."

Here's the fun part: Quigley's proposal would require bidders on many county contracts to disclose their political contributions to county officials and to identify former county employees now on their payrolls.

That's not the Cook County way. But as the rising number of questions about the county's minority set-aside program suggests, it should be.

A federal grand jury is probing the possible involvement of political clout in a canceled, $49 million contract for equipment at the county's Stroger Hospital. Someone who draws a government paycheck ought to explore the saga of Crucial Communications' contract too.



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