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County now under feds' scrutiny, just like city, state

Friday, September 22, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by SCOTT FORNEK Political Reporter

It hasn't hit the mosquito abatement districts and library boards -- yet.

But it seems like every other level of state and local government is under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. And it's mostly about jobs, hiring and promotions.

Cook County officials are the latest to find themselves under fire, as FBI agents raided county offices and hospitals Thursday as part of an investigation that appears to be targeting personnel practices.

If you're keeping score at home, that means Illinois, Cook County and city of Chicago hiring all have attracted the attention of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

It's a trifecta of sorts for reformers and a potential major headache for Democrats.

Voters 'going to be fed up'

"We have rapidly risen above New Jersey and Louisiana in the sense of the degree of corruption and slime that is going on," said Cook County Republican Chairman Gary Skoien. "It's good for the Republican Party from purely a partisan standpoint. I think people are going to be fed up."

Democratic consultant Kitty Kurth isn't so sure, arguing that the stain hurts both Democrats and Republicans by making many voters too disgusted to vote.

"It probably hurts Democrats more -- only because they have more of the offices, but I think realistically in Illinois, I think voters kind of always assume something is going on," she said. "They elected many people who were under clouds. I think, sadly, people just kind of assume that's the way business is done."

To recap:

Federal investigators are probing Gov. Blagojevich's administration on several fronts, including whether state pension business was traded for campaign contributions and whether state hiring is on the square in at least three departments -- child welfare, prisons and transportation.

And 41 people have been convicted in the federal probe of City Hall, including Mayor Daley's former patronage chief Robert Sorich and three others, whom federal prosecutors accused of rigging city hiring and promotions to reward the politically connected.

Will probe affect race?

No one has even been charged in the newly revealed probe of county government. But already insiders are wondering if it will take a toll on the hotly fought race for Cook County Board president between Democrat Todd Stroger and Republican Tony Peraica.

"It really comes down to a simple choice of reformer vs. more of the same," said Peraica spokesman Dan Proft.

Proft said Stroger can't distance himself from the investigation because one of his campaign volunteers is Gerald Nichols, longtime patronage chief to Stroger's father, former Cook County Board President John Stroger.

Nichols has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but he was suspended from his county job after the Chicago Sun-Times reported a whistleblower's allegations that Nichols pushed a politically connected applicant for a job he was not qualified for.

Bill Figel, a spokesman for Todd Stroger, said Nichols was at a few events but has no major role in the campaign.

"I don't think it's bad news for us," Figel said of the FBI raid. "Todd's always carried the burden of the association with his dad, and so he is walking a fine line to distinguish himself, but at the same time honor his dad's good work in government."

Figel said Todd Stroger plans "to implement a program where an independent inspector general, someone with teeth, will create a zero-tolerance policy for patronage hiring."

War with fewer foot soldiers?

The multi-front federal assault "bodes badly for the patronage system," said Don Rose, an independent political consultant.

For Democrats, fewer jobs means fewer campaign workers, such as those in the Hispanic Democratic Organization, and other political groups with ties to City Hall, he said.

But with former Republican Gov. George Ryan's sentencing for corruption so fresh in voters' minds, Rose doubts they will rush to the GOP for reform.

"I think they are disgusted with politicians period," Rose said. "Ryan hasn't yet gone to jail, and they are seeing this kind of thing. I think it can chill the vote. I don't think it can reverse the vote."

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