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Cook Co. Commissioners Try To Rein In Back-Door Pay Raises

Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Progress Illinois
by Angela Caputo

Last week, FOX News Chicago exposed how some Cook County commissioners are converting a $1,200-per-month expense account into personal income or using it to lease a car or pay off their own education expenses.  Like many stories of government waste in Chicago, the FOX investigation surfaced, caused some brief consernation, then quietly slipped away.  When confronted by FOX's Dane Placko about his pocketing of the monthly checks, Comm. William Beavers' brazen response said it all.  Watch:

No one should be "all right" about Beavers turning taxpayer dollars into a de facto $14,000 pay raise. We decided to follow-up on the story to learn what -- if anything -- is being done to address the issue.  What we found is that Commissioners Mike Quigley and Tony Peraica are angling behind the scenes to eliminate the $245,000 contingency fund from next year's budget. Until Board President Todd Stroger rolls out the much-anticipated 2009 spending plan, however, nothing's likely to happen on this front.  In the meantime, Quigley and Comm. Larry Suffredin are drafting a proposal for stricter oversight on how the money's being spent.

Change, according to Suffredin, is likely to come via an enabling resolution, which is passed along with the budget each year. Under the resolution, for the first time, guidelines for how commissioners can spend the $1,200-a-month checks would be spelled out along with documentation requirements.

"This is intended to benefit constituents," Suffredin says of the fund, which is being treated by some as a backdoor pay raise. "What's clear is that there are no standards on how this money is being spent."

According to the rather vague expense reports filed in recent years, several commissioners have simply decided to spend the taxpayer money -- intended to cover out-of-pocket work expenses -- on themselves. Some hightlights:

- In two years, Commissioner Deborah Sims spent some $19,600 to lease a Cadillac. An additional $10,000 went toward gas, oil changes and other vehicle expenses;

- Commissioners Beavers and Joan Murphy have simply taken the money as personal income;

- Commissioner Liz Gorman paid for her college tuition and downtown hotel stays;

- Commissioner Joseph Moreno used his fund to boost the pay of staffer Ambrosio Medrano, a former Chicago alderman who was convicted in a kick-back scheme.

Seven commissioners -- such as Peraica -- have donated money from their expense accounts to various charities.  In their second report, FOX quoted Comm. Forest Claypool saying, "This money, in my view, was never intended to be a personal piggy bank for politicians to give money to their favorite causes at taxpayer expense.  If they want to give their personal money to a charity, that's fine."

It remains to be seen if the commissioners will go along with the proposal to wipe out the fund entirely. Suffredin acknowledges that for those who've used the money for legitimate expenses -- mileage reimbursements, cell phone and Internet service, etc. -- it could be a tough sell.

At the very least, those who are abusing the account need to be reined in, Quigley says. "If you have it, you regulate it."



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