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Stroger census contracts under investigation

Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Two top aides to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger sidestepped the need for commissioners’ approval in doling out nearly $150,000 in census outreach work to people they knew.

The eight contracts are among those being investigated by the county inspector general’s office as it continues to probe Deputy Chief of Staff Carla Oglesby and a company she owns, officials said.

The investigation was launched in the wake of disclosures that a public relations firm owned by Oglesby, spokeswoman for Stroger’s failed re-election bid, was paid just under $25,000 by the county days after Stroger put her on the payroll at $120,000 a year.

Oglesby sought approval for the census outreach contracts. She and Eugene Mullins, Stroger’s spokesman and boyhood friend, picked the eight firms and individuals hired to promote census participation, Mullins said.

Nearly all of the deals were for $24,995 — $5 less than the $25,000 that would have required county board approval. That raised questions among commissioners as to whether the Stroger administration purposefully skirted contracting requirements.

“I would certainly think they wouldn’t have that many contracts that were $24,900,” said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston.

Commissioner John Daley, D-Chicago, the Finance Committee chairman, also said he’s concerned about the contract amounts.
“All of this is under review by the inspector general,” Daley said.

Oglesby returned to work last week after serving a five-day suspension imposed by Stroger, who initially said the time off would last until Inspector General Patrick Blanchard concluded his investigation.

Mullins received a significant raise after Stroger’s last place finish in the Feb. 2 Democratic primary election. He said Tuesday that his raise was being reversed in the wake of publicity.

Mullins said the contracts were handed out to firms and individuals who could wage grass-roots efforts to get more people to participate in the census.

The contracts were sought by Oglesby on April 15 and 16, and checks were issued to six of the firms one week later. None of the firms returned calls asking them to explain the work they were doing.

Invoices submitted by two of the contractors — K. Gregory Demos and the Illinois Human Development Council — were nearly identical and included the same unlisted phone number. Mullins said the Human Development Council contract, which had yet to be paid, was canceled in the wake of questions by the Tribune and another media outlet.

Mullins said the firms were chosen after it was determined the county still had federal funds allocated to promote census participation. “Either we can spend the money the best we can or it goes back to Washington,” Mullins said.

But leaders of the Cook County Complete Count Committee, appointed by Stroger to conduct census outreach, said they were unaware of the contracts.

“Our work has essentially wound down, because the census bureau was putting people out on the street,” committee Chairman Albert Pritchett said.

The contracts were designed to get more people to participate in the door-to-door portion of the census, after the mail-in deadline had passed, Mullins said.

One census expert said outreach could help at this stage of the game. “The big message right now is that the census is not over,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant for the Funders Census Initiative. “It’s far from over, and it’s reached its most critical stage.”

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