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Stroger closer to empowering board inspector

Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County's inspector general would get more power and autonomy under a proposal commissioners advanced Tuesday that would fulfill a campaign promise made by Board President Todd Stroger.

The County Board's Finance Committee voted 10-4 to approve the measure that would give the inspector general broad authority to investigate the president's office and other county elected officials.

But critics called the proposal a publicity stunt that would do little. Several board members opposed the measure or did not vote after saying they disagreed with the provision that allows the inspector general to investigate them.
Stroger, who made the inspector general plan a key pledge in his 2006 campaign, claimed victory on a proposal the full board is expected to vote on next week.

"This is a major win for the president," spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi said. "It's a milestone, and we were able to get bipartisan support from the members of the board. We are going to be able to root out the illegal activity, or any waste or fraud wherever it may be in county government."

Critics say the inspector general's office has done little over the years while federal authorities and county prosecutors have brought criminal cases involving county offices ranging from Provident Hospital to an employment-training program.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) noted that the inspector general's office spoiled an investigation into a payroll scam at the Forest Preserve District a few years ago by taking the statement of a clerk without informing her of her legal rights.

The inspector general has operated largely in the dark, but the new proposal would require the office to submit quarterly reports to the County Board, outlining the number, type and status of cases that have been initiated.

Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), who championed the measure with Stroger, called the current office "fairly useless as it exists."

Quigley said the proposal makes important improvements, notably granting the office more independence through a six-year term and an outside screening process to select an inspector general. But, Quigley said, the revamped office also will need a larger budget.

"It'll be a far more effective measure if it's properly funded," said Quigley, declining to say how much more money he thinks is needed for the office.

The office currently has only three investigators -- five employees total -- and a budget of $392,000.

The committee approved the measure despite an opinion from State's Atty. Richard Devine's office saying it likely was unconstitutional to allow the inspector general to investigate the offices of the county's other elected officials such as sheriff, treasurer and state's attorney. Stroger obtained an outside legal opinion, free of charge, from the firm of Perkins Coie LLP rebutting Devine's office.

Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-Chicago) opposed the measure, saying an inspector general should not be investigating elected officials.

"If we as elected officials violate the law ... we should be investigated by the appropriate, existing, legal authorities -- no sugar coating with no inspector general screwing around with the evidence," Collins said. "This is a camouflage."

Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood) said her colleagues on the board were pushing the measure "just so it will look good to say, 'Yes I voted for this,' ... It is just a publicity stunt as far as I'm concerned."

Commissioner William Beavers (D-Chicago), Stroger's political mentor, removed his name as a sponsor of the measure and left the room before the vote after learning it would permit investigations of board members.

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