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911 for county system

Monday, May 26, 2008
Crain's Chicago Business
by Paul Merrion

Four years into a $41-million program to install police surveillance systems throughout suburban Cook County, a third of municipalities are equipped, the contractor has been replaced after a number of technical glitches and a subcontractor responsible for installing the equipment is bankrupt.

More than half the budget ó funded by federal Homeland Security grants ó has been spent, and at least one county commissioner alleges official misconduct.

For their part, county officials say that the program has had technical problems and acknowledge that an employee has been investigated for his business dealings. But they say the investigation exonerated him and that they're working on the other problems.

The program is another embarrassment for Cook County President Todd Stroger, who pushed through a highly unpopular sales tax hike this year, continues to battle accusations of patronage and is desperately trying to cure an ailing public hospital system.

Cook County Commissioner Michael Quigley calls the Homeland Security project "a disaster so far."

Fellow Commissioner Tony Peraica is even more critical. Mr. Peraica, who is calling for a federal probe of the program, dubbed Project Shield, says two FBI agents interviewed him at his request for almost three hours last month.

"Cook County Project Shield is definitely on their radar, and it's being looked at very carefully," says Mr. Peraica, a Republican running for state's attorney and a frequent critic of the county's Democratic administration.

The FBI declines to comment, and Cook County officials say they have no knowledge of a federal investigation.

"I'm the grant manager of the Homeland Security grant," says Daniel Coughlin, director of the county's Judicial Advisory Council. "I have never gotten any contact whatsoever from any federal authorities."

Mr. Peraica says the program is three years behind schedule, but county officials insist they are on schedule.

There are still more than 80 municipalities waiting for the systems, which county officials promise will link the region's police and emergency personnel with seamless voice, video and data communications. About $23 million has been spent to install systems in patrol cars in 44 municipalities, but some police chiefs say the technology has been a bust.

The county installed two cameras in squad cars at the west suburban River Forest Police Department last year. But after weeks of trying to get them to work, the department ripped them out and reinstalled the old cameras.

"I don't know if the person the county contracted to do the installation just couldn't figure it out or what," River Forest Police Chief Nicholas Weiss says. "But the cameras never did us any good."

Cicero Police Chief Anthony Iniquez has been waiting for the county to install cameras at schools and in gang-infested areas for more than a year. The delay is related to problems getting Cicero's contract finalized with the county, he says.

The county's Mr. Coughlin says the county is "not satisfied" with some elements of the system, which led to the replacement of IBM Corp. as the primary contractor. In March, Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. replaced IBM to oversee the final phase of the project, which Mr. Coughlin says will be completed, within budget, by early next year. The companies decline to comment.

Most of the blame, Mr. Peraica says, rests with IBM subcontractor Public Safety Communications Inc., a South Holland firm that did much of the equipment installation. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January, listing debts of $1.3 million and assets of $77,995, including cash, office furniture and a 1999 Ford Crown Victoria.

Clarence Brownlow, president and owner of Public Safety, did not return calls, and his bankruptcy attorney, Karen Porter, declines to comment. In its bankruptcy filings, the company reported total revenue of $2.8 million for 2005 and 2006. Why Public Safety failed is unclear. Its filing is incomplete and the U.S. bankruptcy trustee is seeking an involuntary liquidation of the company.

Mr. Peraica alleges that the firm wasn't qualified to do the job and was hired because of a relationship with Dudley Donelson, the county's deputy director of wide area networks and a direct supervisor of Project Shield. Mr. Peraica asked county officials to find out if there was a connection between Public Safety and a company Mr. Donelson ran called IT Suite Inc.

Mr. Donelson incorporated IT Suite in March 2002 and it was dissolved in August 2006, state records show. Mr. Donelson didn't respond to repeated requests for comment. A county spokeswoman says employees are allowed to have outside businesses.

Antonio Hylton, who was briefed on the probe into the program when he was hired as the county's chief information officer last year, says he's satisfied that the matter has been resolved. Two investigations by the county's inspector general "found zero substance to the allegations," he says.

Mike Colias contributed.

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