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Stroger aide, CFO Dunnings resigns

Friday, April 17, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Mark J. Konkol

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger has ousted his cousin from her $175,701-a-year job as the county’s chief financial officer amid questions about her dealings with a recently fired county patronage worker.

Donna Dunnings resigned after Stroger asked for her resignation “in the wake of Dunnings’ disclosure of issues related to a personnel matter that could conflict with her abilities to fulfill her responsibilities” as CFO, Stroger’s office said in a press release this morning.

Stroger spokesman Sean Howard said the ouster was over Dunnings’ ties to former University of Georgia basketball player Tony Cole, who was fired last week after Stroger’s office said he didn’t disclose past criminal convictions on his application to the county.

The controversy began after the Chicago Sun-Times raised questions about Cole’s troubled past — as well as the fact that Dunnings twice bailed him out of jail while he was her then-$58,000-a-year administrative assistant, according to court records.

In radio interviews Friday, Stroger said he asked his cousin to resign because Cole was “making allegations against Miss Dunnings, all of which she tells me are not true.” Stroger refused to give details about the allegations, but did say he believes they are unfounded. Still, the president decided Dunnings could not continue in her post because of the “very political atmosphere we are living in right now.”

If the allegations are made public, Stroger said Dunnings would not be able to do her job while defending herself against any charges Cole might make.

“Being in the position she is in will become a bit of a media circus and I don't really think she will be able to perform her duties while trying to fight off not only the papers, who be insistent in talking to her as much as possible, but even politicians on the board who love to make political hay of anything that happens,” Stroger said WLS-AM 890’s Don Wade and Roma Show.

Stroger said Dunnings had talked to him about Cole and her desire to see him “do well.”

“She thought, as I did, that he was smart and he could do well if we just gave him a chance. But it seems he had too many personal problems,” Stroger said.

Dunnings, who was hired by the county in 1987, will be replaced by Joseph Fratto, a former county comptroller and current chief of staff in the Stroger administration.

Stroger personally hired Cole in October after meeting the then-busboy while dining at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in River North.

Cole got promoted to higher paying county jobs even though he was arrested in November and again in January for violating an order of protection against an ex-girlfriend that he pleaded guilty to punching in the face.

Dunnings put up Cole’s bail both times he was arrested for violating the protection order. On Nov. 20, Dunnings paid $1,000 to bail Cole out of jail. And on Jan. 23 — after Cole’s total bond was increased to $40,000 — Dunnings put another $3,000 of the bail on credit cards, according to court records.

Cole said Dunnings bailed him out because he she was his boss and he “begged and begged and cried and cried and told her I would pay her back.” She described herself as a mentor and boss to Cole — nothing more.

“I vouched for him because the president and I were trying to mentor him,” Dunnings said Thursday night, before she was forced out. “I didn’t know about his previous convictions, just the incidents he was [recently charged with]. He’s innocent until proven guilty.”

Dunnings said she paid the bail with her personal credit cards. Cole paid her back the first $1,000, but has yet to pay her back for the remaining $3,000, Dunnings said.

On Jan. 28 — five days after Dunnings paid her secretary’s bail a second time — Cole was promoted to a $61,000-a-year assistant human resources director post in the highway department. Some employees were concerned that Cole had access to their personal information, county sources said.

Stroger refused to be interviewed about Cole’s employment and firing.

Five days after Cole was fired, he was back in county jail for violating the terms of his probation, a Cook County state’s attorney spokesman said. Part of Cole’s probation included being on home confinement. Cole was not home when probation officers came to his apartment to check on him at 1 a.m. recently. He did not answer the door or answer his phone, the spokesman said.

On Tuesday, Cole’s bond was increased to $200,000 and he was sent back to jail.

Cole appeared in domestic violence court Friday where he was “very disruptive and agitated and making outbursts” during the court hearing, sources said. Cole was screaming that there was a “conspiracy against me.”

Cole told the judge that probation officers came to his house when he was sleeping after having oral surgery and taking Vicodin for pain, sources said. The judge did not reduce Cole’s bail, telling him to bring documents proving he had surgery and was prescribed pain killers to a status hearing April 22. Cole remains in county jail.

Before he was arrested on Tuesday, Cole told the Sun-Times he believes he was fired because he started investigating the legitimacy of time records kept by highway employees. Stroger spokesman Gene Mullins said that’s not true.

Cole has been in and out of trouble since 2002, when he was charged with aggravated assault with intent to rape and kicked off the Georgia basketball team. The criminal charge was dropped but he wasn’t allowed back on the team.

Then, Cole made national news by blowing the whistle on his coach, Jim Harrick, for a slew of NCAA violations. He claimed Harrick gave him financial gifts and had his son, Jim Harrick Jr., give Cole and other players an “A” in a physical education class he didn’t have to attend. Harrick Jr. was fired and his father resigned from the school and retired from coaching.

The alleged rape victim claimed in a federal civil lawsuit that she had consensual sex with Cole in 2002, but was sexually assaulted and raped by two other students at Cole’s urging, according to court documents. The civil case was settled in 2007.

In 2003, Cole was charged with threatening an ex-girlfriend with an Uzi if she did not let him in her house. Those charges were dropped when the alleged victim didn’t appear in court. That same year, Cole pleaded guilty to a felony charge for writing bad checks and he was sentenced to three years probation under Georgia’s First Offender law. Cole successfully completed his probation, which does not leave a criminal conviction on a person’s record under Georgia law.

In March 2008, Cole was arrested for punching his former girlfriend with a closed fist. He pleaded guilty in DuPage County to that charge on Sept. 10, 2008, and was fined $210 and placed on conditional discharge for a year. He also was ordered to avoid contact with woman.

However, on the same day he pleaded guilty, Cole was hit with new charges that include violating his bond, obstructing a police office, resisting a police officer and battery.

He was at the Wheaton courthouse waiting for the domestic battery case to be called when he allegedly cornered the woman, kept her from going into the courtroom and asked her to drop the charges against him.

The woman told prosecutors and police about his alleged actions. Cole refused to tell a sheriff’s deputy his name, then pushed the cop’s hand away when she told him to sit down. That led to the obstructing, resisting and battery charges which are still pending, according to court records.

Contributing: Dan Rozek

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