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'Very bad audit' turns up trouble at education office
COOK COUNTY | Credit charges, payments to relatives questioned

Friday, June 12, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Dave McKinney

SPRINGFIELD -- The state's top auditor called for a criminal probe of the suburban Cook County regional education office after an audit found that the director repeatedly used a government credit card for personal expenses and approved questionable payments to relatives on his payroll.

Auditor General William Holland's report Thursday focused on Regional Supt. Charles A. Flowers, whose state-funded office has amassed a nearly $1 million deficit. The regional education office issues teaching certificates, approves school calendars and reviews school districts' finances in suburban Cook County.

The deficit that has run up under Flowers prompted Holland to suggest the office might not "continue as a going concern" or be able to repay a $190,000 loan from Cook County that Flowers engineered last year with County Board President Todd Stroger's help. That loan is due this month.

Holland also questioned a $6,000 cash advance Flowers authorized for his administrative assistant --Barbara Flowers, his sister. Flowers' nephew also was on his office's payroll and was improperly paid for lunch breaks, the audit found.

And two high-level deputies of Flowers making more than $80,000 a year got consulting gigs of $9,400 and $12,000 to monitor state grants -- which they did during their normal work hours.

"This is a very bad audit. I can't emphasize that enough," Holland said. He referred his findings to Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez for further investigation.

Flowers was elected in 2006 to a four-year term. He did not return a message left at his Westchester office.

Of 40 credit card purchases Flowers made, 16 were for personal items, the audit found. Among the purchases, Holland noted, were airline tickets to fly Flowers' family members to Mississippi. He also withdrew $6,669 in cash advances on the credit card while in Illinois and Mississippi, ostensibly to purchase a vehicle and furniture for the regional office.

But Holland's auditors found no evidence of the vehicle or furniture. And auditors could not verify Flowers' claim that he repaid those advances from personal funds.

Cook County Commissioner Lawrence Suffredin said he intended to ask Alvarez's office to "siphon off and collect any funds we can find" from the regional office to ensure repayment of the $190,000 Cook County loan.

"Anything in education and dealing with children should be our best examples of government, and obviously this is not," Suffredin said.



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