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Stroger and a subpoena

Monday, September 28, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Chicago Tribune editorial staff

"Committee members probably should have some confidentiality and not immediately call the press. But they are what they are."

-- Cook County Board President Todd Stroger on why County Board members shouldn't inform the public about a subpoena exploring how his administration spends taxpayer dollars.

Only the foolhardy think they can guess precisely why prosecutors resort to subpoenas in any given case. In this case, though, we have an excellent clue: The Tribune's Hal Dardick and Matt Walberg report that Cook County prosecutors have subpoenaed county financial records in what sources tell the newspaper is a widening criminal investigation. The probe began with questions about Stroger's 2008 hiring -- and oddly rapid promotion -- of steakhouse busboy Tony Cole: You'll recall that Cole's county salary shot from $48,000 to $61,000 in only four months.

Whatever the prosecutors learn, we hope they'll eventually share every shred of it with taxpaying citizens. Stroger hasn't adequately explained this disturbing episode, which includes the abrupt firing of Donna Dunnings, the county's chief financial officer and his own cousin.

Stroger loyalists on the County Board have succeeded in deflecting questions about all of this. Back on April 23, Commissioner Tim Schneider led a charge for Stroger's disclosure of why Dunnings had been fired -- and whether county finances had been mismanaged. A Stroger aide floated unsupported assurance that there had been "no misuse of county assets."

That was a lie. This chain of events started with the egregious misuse of county assets when Stroger hired Cole -- with taxpayer dollars, but without a criminal background check. The deeper Schneider and board members Larry Suffredin and Tony Peraica probed for explanations, the more Finance Chairman John Daley and other Democratic regulars tried to thwart them. Stroger apologists Joan Patricia Murphy and Deborah Sims even tried in desperation to adjourn the April 23 meeting rather than have appropriate questioning continue.

So here we are, five months later, with no answers but with criminal prosecutors on the case. They have ordered Deloitte & Touche LLP, the county's auditing firm, to produce documents related to the 2008 audit of county finances, according to a memo to County Board members from Daley, who also heads the board's Audit Committee.

An accompanying letter from Deloitte says that firm's personnel "may serve as witnesses to a current grand jury investigation." Assistant State's Attorney John Blakey, head of the office's Special Prosecutions Bureau, confirmed issuance of the subpoena but won't comment on what financial records he needs to see or the nature of the investigation.

By themselves, subpoenas don't imply that a crime has been committed. Many of them lead nowhere. We hope Blakey's probe does, though, help the rest of us assess whatever special treatment Stroger engineered for Cole -- and whether Stroger acted fairly in firing Dunnings. We're also curious about reports that the probe has widened to a broader inquiry into how Stroger's administration has spent money and accounted for it.

The Tribune's Dardick last spring detailed a chain of events that raised serious questions about the hiring of Cole without a background check. Cole was hired last October, and the FBI and the Illinois State Police say they sent to the county their background checks about Cole's criminal past in November and December. But Cole wasn't fired for lying about his criminal history until April.

That's remarkable. Why the delay? Would that happen at your workplace?

And why not complete background checks for any employee who'll work with county finances before he's hired? The Stroger administration's excuse for that came from a personnel officer who told reporters that "in the war for talent," there just isn't time to check backgrounds first.

Yes, it's a battle royal out there, with employers elbowing each other aside in order to hire steakhouse busboys with criminal records.

Mr. Blakey, odds are strong that 5 million-plus citizens of Cook County won't know the whole story here unless you and your boss, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, push and push hard. This is an excellent opportunity to break the pattern in which only federal authorities aggressively pursue possible cases of corruption in county government.

Of course, those citizens would know more if Stroger would just tell them. But that's not likely to happen. Democratic ward bosses stuck him on the ballot in 2006 in large part because they knew he would continue the patronage practice of hiring cronies. Confessing that he hired Cole for no intelligent reason would further undermine Stroger's rationale for a sales tax hike that hurts employers and poor households.

Hence Stroger's slap at County Board members who have spoken about the subpoena to county citizens. To Stroger, each of those citizens is little but revenue on two feet. Why would anybody level with them?

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