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Project Shield a big drain on Cook County taxpayers

Tuesday, March 02, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
by Carol Marin and Don Moseley

Cook County's post-Sept. 11 security initiative, dubbed Project Shield, which has come under fire for being sharply over budget and years behind schedule, is proving to be an even bigger drain on taxpayers.

And in the end, it will provide a more porous security net than envisioned.

Those are the latest findings of an ongoing Chicago Sun-Times / NBC5 News investigation.

The key aim of the program funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security was to improve communications and decision-making in case of a terror attack, natural disaster or other major emergency here by installing new, state-of-the-art video cameras on police cars and at stationary locations throughout the county and linking them to a central command center.

All 129 municipalities in Cook County were supposed to be included in the system. But faced with problems that included cameras that didn't work properly, suburbs including Tinley Park, Berwyn, Park Ridge and Morton Grove opted out.

The entire countywide network now includes a total of 103 cameras, with just three more cameras still to be installed, newly obtained records and interviews show. The total of 106 would amount to fewer than a single camera per municipality. More than five years after Project Shield was launched under then-Cook County Board President John Stroger Jr., just 76 municipalities have fully operational cameras.

And the price tag to provide that slimmed-down network keeps going up.

Project Shield was started in 2004. Originally, it was to be completed in the fall of 2008, at an estimated cost of $31.5 million.

As of last fall, the county had obtained -- and spent -- $43 million on the federally funded initiative.

Now, records show, county officials have asked for an additional $5 million. And the work isn't expected to be finished until sometime next year, according to Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin.

Exactly why the cost is rising even as the final product becomes smaller isn't clear.

Cook County officials have rejected interview requests regarding Project Shield.

Just weeks before the Feb. 2 primary, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger fired Antonio Hylton, the county's chief information officer, who also headed Project Shield. Hylton didn't return a call to his home. Stroger has refused interview requests regarding the program. And a Stroger spokeswoman said Hylton's replacement -- Steve Edmonson -- would not discuss the matter either. Asked why, she said: "No specific reason. He's simply not available to you for [an] interview at this time."

For months, Stroger's administration rejected requests to review reports on the program that, under a county contract with a politically connected consulting firm, are required to be filed every week. Stroger aides maintained that, despite the contract requirement, no written reports had been filed -- for 21 months.

That wasn't true, officials now acknowledge.

John Sterling, president of the consulting firm Synch-Solutions, declined to speak in detail about Project Shield but said his company had filed the reports. Sterling -- whose company is now set to be paid a total of $1 million, double its initial $500,000 contract price-- said he has no idea why county officials had said otherwise.

Sterling is the stepson of former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, who was a major financial contributor to the Stroger re-election bid that fell far short in last month's Democratic primary.

After denying the existence of the quality assurance reports, county officials then rejected a request for copies of all of them, citing an exemption in the state's Freedom of Information Act in maintaining it would be too burdensome to produce the reports, dating from August 2008 to December 2009 and totaling 4,436 pages. Instead, county officials released only a small portion of the documents.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said her office is now looking into allegations of money being misspent on Project Shield.

That revelation came during a testy exchange between her and U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security meeting last week.

"We are looking into it right now," Napolitano said. "I am as opposed to misspent, overspent, inefficient use of tax dollars as anyone you will ever see."


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