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With heat on, county clears up its legal perk

Thursday, October 05, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Employee newsletters can be dreary affairs, what with all the notes about retirements and health insurance and 401(k) plans.

But Cook County government now has something a little edgier to communicate: what its employees need to know about paying for a lawyer because federal investigators have come calling.

"Like changes to dental coverage, we need to tell them, `If you need an attorney, these are the rules,'" said Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-Elmwood Park). "Unfortunately, we need to tell people this."

Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) suggested that the name of the newsletter that goes to the county's 26,000 workers should be called, "The Indictment News."

Federal agents fanned out across the county two weeks ago, serving subpoenas and a search warrant and interviewing employees in an investigation of hiring practices. With Chicago and the State of Illinois already the subject of federal hiring probes, there are few outposts of government where the subject of hiring a lawyer could not be a matter of water-cooler chatter.

County commissioners mulled the matter Wednesday during a Finance Committee meeting, where they approved paying a $10,400 legal bill for former Commissioner Al Carr. Federal authorities had contacted Carr, along with other commissioners and employees, as part of an investigation into minority contracting fraud.

Silvestri, chairman of the county's Litigation Subcommittee, noted that employees should be told before they hire lawyers that the most the county will pay is $185 an hour.

The county will pay for the legal fees for employees as long as the representation pertains to their official duties and they are not convicted of a crime.

Carr was not accused of any wrongdoing. Carr's lawyer was paid $485 an hour.

Silvestri said commissioners agreed to pay the bill because the lawyer was unaware of the county's limit until after the work was done. Also, the lawyer obtained a court order mandating he be paid that amount, Silvestri said.

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