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Deluge of problems with flood money

Monday, January 10, 2011
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is meeting with state officials today to figure out how to salvage a $10.3 million federal grant meant to aid Chicago and suburban residents hit hardest by the 2008 floods.

Preckwinkle inherited what observers have called a public relations and financial nightmare from predecessor Todd Stroger, whose administration became the focus of a criminal investigation because of the flood grant.

His deputy chief of staff, Carla Oglesby, steered a contract to her private public relations firm to get the word out about the flood grant — prompting an investigation that prosecutors say revealed she had handed no-bid, no-work contracts to her own firms and that of her pals.

The state has forked over $1.7 million in reimbursements to the county. But the remaining $8.6 million hangs in the balance. If the county can’t produce the paperwork needed for reimbursement, the money could come out of Cook County coffers.

The Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers the federal grant, recently suspended payments to the county after officials submitted incomplete paperwork documenting flood-related repairs and other expenses.

“They dumped three boxes of invoices and vouchers on us Nov. 19,” DHS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger’s administration.

“They were asking for money, but not submitting the documentation required,” she said.

To date, 90 percent of the county’s reimbursement requests to the state — which came in during the Stroger administration — have been denied.

And the state is vowing not to pick up the county’s $78,000-plus tab for a September picnic at Brookfield Zoo — billed as an educational event for flood victims.

The county already had to eat at least $50,000 in contracts — including the one handed to Oglesby’s CGC Communications — to promote the flood grant because it didn’t qualify for the federal relief money.

That said, Sainvilus said the door is still open to cleaning up the flood grant mess. Preckwinkle wants to see what can be done to quickly address the problems.

Solving the problem takes on greater urgency as Preckwinkle works to close a $487 million gap in a $3 billion budget proposal she’ll introduce this month.



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