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Cook County Realtor hired by Stroger demoted after questions of his qualifications
Man among 3 employed before county legally could do so, records suggest

Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

A real estate agent Cook County Board President Todd Stroger hired for a high-level Health Department job apparently created just for him in January has been demoted and had his salary cut after the Tribune questioned his qualifications.

Ronald Burleson, a South Side Realtor who worked at Stroger's health club, is one of at least three people county officials hired before they had the legal authority to do so, internal county hiring records and public budget documents show.

Critics said the three might be among a much larger group—all hired for jobs not yet authorized—camouflaged by the county's myriad and unspecific job descriptions for nearly 24,000 employees. The hirings, they say, illustrate how difficult it is to get clarity on how much tax money the county really needs.

Stroger hired Burleson as a $99,000-a-year administrator at the Health Services Bureau on Jan. 22 at the same time he was trying to persuade the County Board to raise the sales tax to save the health system from financial collapse. Little more than a month later, county commissioners increased the sales tax by a percentage point to generate $426 million more a year.

In late February, Stroger administration officials said many people had been hired for public health-care jobs not yet approved, causing several commissioners to cry foul, but the county's top hiring official said his colleagues were wrong.

"I believe people were hired before their positions were authorized," said Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago). "That violates the budget process. That's a big no-no."

The hirings also appeared to violate a hiring freeze imposed by Comptroller Joseph Fratto on Dec. 7, after fiscal 2008 began without a budget.

Stroger spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi said people were hired only to fill vacant positions. But in each of three cases, the positions the new employees were hired for did not yet exist or weren't funded, the documents show.

For a short time after Burleson was hired for the health job, he went to administrative meetings. But other county health-care workers decried his lack of expertise in their field, and Burleson then was assigned for several weeks to answer telephones and make appointments at county-owned Provident Hospital.

In recent weeks, the Stroger administration moved Burleson from the hospital to the county budget department, where he now makes $86,000 as an administrative analyst. The latest job switch came after the Tribune asked Stroger's staff about Burleson's qualifications and duties. Stroger "put him in a position he was better qualified for," said Eugene Mullins, Stroger's top spokesman.

Earlier, however, Mullins declined to discuss Burleson's qualifications, saying Burleson was put in a position in which hiring for political reasons is not barred by law.

"That's irrelevant in an exempt position," Mullins said of Burleson's qualifications. "That's secondary to who the president wants to put in" the post. Stroger "has a right to hire an administrator of his choosing, based on his evaluation of the qualifications necessary," Mullins added.

Burleson is a former city Streets and Sanitation supervisor under the late Mayor
Harold Washington. He later found employment as a physical education teacher, real estate agent and worker at the East Bank Club, where Stroger frequently plays basketball.

Burleson initially replaced Carole Hobson, Mullins said. Hobson, a registered nurse with a master's in public administration who ran school-based health clinics before her August 2006 retirement after 42 years in health care.

It's not clear why anyone was needed to fill Hobson's shoes. All but one of seven school-based clinics overseen by Hobson were closed months after her departure, when 2007 spending was slashed to balance the budget.

"When I left, they told me they were not going to hire anyone in that position," she said.

Burleson, reached twice by telephone, declined to comment and referred calls to Stroger's media staff.

The other two employees hired before county officials had the authority to do so were Sandy Hardesty, hired Jan. 7 as an administrative analyst at $70,204 a year, and Lena Henderson, hired one day earlier as a systems analyst at $55,499 a year for the Board of Review. Henderson's post wasn't authorized until the 2008 budget was approved.

Hardesty works for Chief Financial Officer Donna Dunnings, Stroger's cousin and political confidant. Antongiorgi said Hardesty was hired to a fill a vacated position funded in the 2007 budget, but the only listing for a job similar to Hardesty's in that year's budget had a salary at half of what Hardesty is being paid.



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