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Stroger again skirts board approval in payments

Thursday, September 02, 2010
Daily Herald
by Ted Cox

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's administration acknowledged Wednesday that 25 checks worth more than $6.7 million were paid out before receiving the required board approval.

The board moved to ratify the transactions retroactively at its scheduled meeting Wednesday, but Democratic Chicago Commissioner John Daley, head of the finance committee, said, "I'm very concerned that this is a true violation of the board's intent."

Chief Financial Officer Jaye Williams said she could not release the names of the persons who authorized the checks, as an investigation is ongoing, but she said some employees had been "removed" from their positions and disciplinary measures were being "contemplated."

Stroger attributed the "mistake" to "human error," calling it "more of an issue of you pressed a button when you shouldn't have done it." He asked for tolerance, saying, "This is not time to pull someone over the rails."

Yet, Riverside Republican Commissioner Tony Peraica said some of the checks were as large as $700,000 and pointed to it as a dramatic escalation of the so-called 24-9 contracts - payments just under the $25,000 figure requiring board approval - that Stroger handed out as a lame duck after losing in the Democratic Primary earlier this year. "The ship is not being steered," Peraica said. "The management is not managing."

Deputy State's Attorney Patrick Driscoll Jr. said the violation was minor and could easily be undone by the board's approval for the payments, which was granted later in the meeting. "This is for work that's already been performed," he said, calling the error simply "a matter of timing." The checks were cut Aug. 19 and 26, and were discovered last Friday by Williams, who reported them to Daley and the board.

Yet, after a summer of tussling with Stroger over the 24-9 contracts and hirings, promotions and raises he granted as a lame duck, it raised more suspicion among the commissioners, who went on to pass an ordinance smoothing the transition from Stroger to the next president, who will be elected in November and sworn in a month later.

Stroger will be required to create office space for the new president-elect and to guarantee access to records.

"I don't have any opposition," Stroger said, adding he would comply with the new transition measures.

The board also sent to committee a proposed resolution calling on the General Assembly to remove the demand for senior citizens in Cook County to reapply for their exemption on property-tax bills every year. The resolution is sponsored by Democratic Chicago Commissioners Forrest Claypool and Bridget Gainer and Evanston Democrat Larry Suffredin along with Bartlett Republican Timothy Schneider. Claypool is running for assessor as an independent, and the resolution also has the support of retiring incumbent Assessor James Houlihan, who is fighting the reimposition of what amounts to a nuisance requirement.

"There is no evidence that a significant number of people are getting the senior exemption inappropriately," said Houlihan spokesman Eric Herman. "It is not a widespread problem."

The matter should be taken up at the next board meeting in two weeks.

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