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Stroger Troubles: State's Attorney Reportedly Opens Investigation, Fired Cousin On Hook For Felon's Legal Bills

Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Huffington Post
by Tim Taliaferro

Last week may have been a rough one for Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, but this one is shaping up to be worse.

According to several reports, the Cook County State's Attorney's office has opened an investigation into the scandal surrounding the hiring of patronage worker Tony Cole and the firing of Donna Dunnings, Stroger's cousin and former chief financial officer.

Sally Daly, spokeswoman for Cook County State's Atty. Anita Alvarez, declined to comment on whether an investigation has been opened.

"We are not in a position to confirm or deny that," Daly told the Huffington Post.

Laura Lechowicz Felicione, a lawyer for Stroger, confirmed that the county had received subpoenas when asked whether there had been inquiries involving Tony Cole, the Tribune reports.

A Stroger spokesman confirmed to the Daily Herald that the administration received subpoenas from the state's attorney's office, but refused to "comment on an ongoing investigation."

Last week Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin called for state and federal probes into the hiring and firing scandal.

In a jailhouse interview with the Sun-Times Monday, Cole said he has been questioned by a Cook County assistant state's attorney in the financial crimes division and has received a subpoena to appear before a grand jury.

"They wanted information about the two people. You know, they said if I talked to them, this whole thing could go away," Cole told the Sun-Times.

The controversy revolves around what Stroger knew about Cole's criminal background and his two arrests while working for the county, when he knew it, and why he fired Dunnings.

Stroger hired Cole, a former basketball star turned steakhouse busboy with a lengthy rap sheet that included a felony conviction, and gave him a job working for Dunnings as an administrative assistant. Then he fired Dunnings after it came to light that she twice bailed Cole out of jail using her personal credit card. That $4,000 Dunnings spent to get Cole out of jail may go toward paying Cole's legal bills the Tribune reports.

Last week the Tribune revealed that Stroger's version of the events leading up to Cole's firing were not consistent with the records of the Illinois State Police. Stroger said he his office did not receive the results of Cole's background check until April, while the state police said it mailed the results to the county board in December.

Why he fired Dunnings also remains unclear, as Stroger has given varying explanations for it.

First, he said fired her "for her own good" and to protect her from his opponents on the county board, even though she had "done nothing wrong."

Then Stroger claimed he wasn't really firing her -- she had been looking for a new job already and together the two decided it was time for her to move on. But that didn't square with Dunnings telling the Sun-Times she was "shocked" by her firing.

Stroger and Dunnings both have denied reports that Cole and Dunnings were romantically involved.

Now it appears Cole, who is being held in Cook County jail for purportedly violating conditions of a restraining order, is ready to talk -- at least about some things.

He told the Sun-Times he believes he's being kept in jail to prevent him from releasing damaging information and wants help from the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

"I'm in here on $200,000 [bond] for a misdemeanor," Cole said, suggesting that the bond amount was unusually high in order to keep him in jail. Cole had previously told the Sun-Times that he called Stroger to bail him out of jail, a claim Stroger denies.

Meanwhile, the Tribune reports that not only did Cole lie on his county job application he also lied to federal housing officials, saying he was an unemployed Hurricane Katrina evacuee in order to get his $720 a month rent covered by taxpayers.

Before he was fired April 10, Cole was making $61,000 a year in his job as human-relations director for the county highway department.

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