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Stroger jobs program loses $2.7 million
Long-troubled training program could lose millions more

Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick and Ray Gibson

At a time when more than one out of 10 Chicago-area workers are unemployed, Cook County lost $2.7 million meant to teach job skills to hundreds of suburban residents because it failed to spend the federal money, state documents show.

The long-troubled job training program run by County Board President Todd Stroger's administration could lose millions more as the state conducts an intense review of spending by the President's Office of Employment and Training. About half the money came from the federal economic stimulus program.

Citing the "severity" of problems, a state economic development agency is moving to hire an executive to oversee the beleaguered program until Stroger's term ends in early December.

Among an audit's 68 findings were questions about whether youths who were paid more than $1 million were even qualified to be in the program, why $31,000 in pension payments were made for temporary summer youth workers and why a payroll company was given $12,000 to administer wage payments of $38,000 for one pay period.

"During this economic crisis, we have to make sure that every single dollar available to help put people back to work is used efficiently, effectively and appropriately," Warren Ribley, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said in a June statement to county commissioners.

The agency's takeover recommendation comes five years after the state labeled the county program as "high risk" when a top official was under investigation for stealing money.

"Anytime there's more scrutiny and more eyes watching taxpayer dollars, it's a good thing," said Commissioner Timothy Schneider, R- Streamwood, in response to the state's actions. "To have to return money year after year to the state for mismanagement or misused funds is a disgrace."

Less than two months ago, Stroger hired retiring state Rep. Art Turner, D-Chicago, to lead the job training effort, which has faced increasingly heated criticism by the state and county commissioners.

"We believe that we have a great opportunity to move in a direction that will meet and surpass the goals that we have set for (the program)," Stroger's administration said in a written response last week to Tribune questions about the agency's finances. "We are dedicated to improving our relationships with the state."

Stroger officials said the administration would respond to the critical state report within 30 days and took a more conciliatory tone than other recent responses to the issues surrounding the program. The administration is asking for a hearing on the issues, blaming the state for many of the program's problems.

The Stroger administration accuses the state of improperly withholding funding, forcing the county to spend millions of local tax dollars, and of wrongly blocking access to a key computer system. The state also improperly took back $2.4 million from a different pot of money and gave it to other job training programs in Illinois, the county wrote in response to the state.

The county program is supposed to provide training and temporary jobs for young people in the south and west suburbs, as well as retrain those who need new skills to get back into the work force. The state already runs those programs in the north suburbs. Both the county and state want to fix the problems and merge the programs.

Problems with the county job programs have prevented thousands of workers from getting employment training over the years, Ribley told commissioners.

The program has been beset by mismanagement during Stroger's tenure and also under his late father, John Stroger. Prosecutors alleged that nearly $1.8 million in federal money was stolen.

Roberto Rivera, a former regional deputy director, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in 2007 in a case involving the theft of $1.6 million. Former Executive Director Rudolph Sanchez and former regional manager Ronald O. Harper have pleaded not guilty. Their trials are pending.

Shirley Glover, a financial manager, was convicted of embezzling more than $180,000 and last year began serving a four-year sentence.

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