Federal prosecutors are looking at nearly four years of expense records for Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, who acknowledged Wednesday that he used the government allowance to augment his salary for two years.
Grand jury subpoenas issued by the U.S. attorney's office ask for all of Beavers' expense filings since he took county office in December 2006. The most recent subpoena was issued Oct. 4 in an investigation that dates to May 2009.
The subpoenas, obtained by the Tribune through the state's open-records law, indicate they were issued as part of an "official criminal investigation." Prosecutors asked that the records be turned over to an Internal Revenue Service agent, but they don't specify the exact nature of the probe.
Beavers, a storied 75-year-old Chicago Democrat, said Wednesday that he used his $1,200-a-month expense allowance to boost his income until it attracted media attention in late 2008.
"I used it as income and paid taxes," he said in a telephone interview.
The commissioner said he did not know what prosecutors were after with the latest subpoena.
"A subpoena is a subpoena," Beavers said. "I haven't even seen it."
Beavers is a former police officer and South Side aldermen who still believes in old-school machine politics and often praises the merits of patronage hiring. At County Board meetings, Beavers quickly assumed the role of floor leader for board President Todd Stroger.
Before commissioners barred the use of taking expense payments as personal income in May 2009, no rules governed the use of the so-called contingency funds. A budget footnote simply stated they were "for miscellaneous expenses and purposes not otherwise provided for."
Now commissioners must file much more detailed accountings of how they spend the funds. The rules specify that the money must be used for costs related to government service.
The board also required that commissioners file expense reports every three months, instead of once a year. Those reports have been posted on the county Web site, but without many details.
As of Dec. 1, the board also lowered the monthly allowance to a maximum of $900.
When reports were required only once a year, Beavers simply stated on his annual filing that "contingency funds were taken as income," according to other documents obtained by the Tribune through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, a former commissioner, said it's important that County Board members keep detailed records.
"If you can't document you spent the money appropriately, it's income," he said.
Online records indicate that half a dozen commissioners don't use the expense funds. The other 11 use them for a wide range of costs, including gas, parking, meals and car lease payments.
County records indicate that Beavers has been using the expense funds since May 2009 to pay utility bills at his district office, gas for his vehicle and office supplies. Although he's a supporter of the sales tax increase enacted under Stroger, Beavers bought almost all his gas across the border in Indiana, where taxes are lower.
The records show that Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman, R-Orland Park, has used nearly $7,400 of her expense funds to pay bills for the MBA she received in 2008 at the University of Notre Dame.
Her Nov. 2 opponent, Democrat Patrick Maher, has made those payments a campaign issue. Gorman defended her use of the funds, saying the money barely covered the cost of books.