In an effort to combat scandals and incompetence in some suburbs, the Cook County sheriff is seeking the power to scour the financial books and policing records of municipalities that repeatedly fail to follow a basic financial accountability law.
Citing a Tribune series this week that exposed a litany of problems in south suburban Harvey, Sheriff Tom Dart is asking the County Board to let him become a suburb's inspector general if that municipality has failed to file two consecutive years of financial audits as required by state law. As inspector general, he would be able to audit nearly every aspect of that suburb's government, from policing to spending.
Last year, Dart offered suburbs the opportunity to voluntarily give him that power — with some success — but he said Wednesday that he should be given the ability to come uninvited into severely troubled suburbs. He argued that, for too long, outsiders have done too little to demand basic accountability from those suburbs' leaders.
“To just really sort of shrug your shoulders and say that there are certain towns, villages and cities in Cook County that, you're just not going to get any justice — you're just going to have no basic competence in your government — that's not going to happen,” Dart told the Tribune in an interview Wednesday. “We can't sit around continuing to do this.”
In a three-part series, the Tribune showed how Harvey had the highest violent crime rate of hundreds of Chicago suburbs paired with a low arrest rate, leaving many crime victims or their families complaining that the community had become lawless.
The series documented not only substandard policing and the troubled backgrounds of some officers but also how federal officials — as part of an undercover investigation — helped re-elect Harvey's controversial mayor, then later documented widespread problems in policing but left without forcing reforms.
The series also showed how state officials have done little to enforce laws requiring the mayor to disclose his campaign donors and to have the financially struggling suburb's books audited once a year.
It is the last finding that Dart seized upon in his proposal.
The proposed ordinance would allow his department to become a suburb's inspector general if it failed to follow the audit law two years in a row, and if state officials have failed to force an audit. Harvey, for example, owes audits for the past four years. Dart's office said four other suburbs could qualify as well: Country Club Hills, Dixmoor, Maywood and Sauk Village.
“If they're not doing a basic audit, my God, if that doesn't set off the bells and whistles that there's a bigger issue ...” Dart said.
In a written statement, Harvey Mayor Eric Kellogg said the city is working with the state comptroller to provide the missing audits and said he wasn't sure why the sheriff should be given the authority to perform financial audits.
“As it relates to the proposed ordinance, we are unclear how the city's financial reports have any correlation with police issues,” he said in his statement. “However, I will review the ordinance to see how it may affect the city of Harvey.”
The family of one homicide victim featured in the Tribune series said Dart's proposal is long overdue. Thomas and Marsha Lee paid for billboards and handed out fliers to try to help Harvey police solve the 2008 killing of their son Tommy. But the couple said Harvey police lied to them and eventually stopped talking with them altogether. A state police agent later reviewed Harvey's handling of the case and called it a “travesty.”
Marsha Lee said Wednesday she's heard from too many parents of crime victims in Harvey who've shared similar stories of incompetence and neglect.
“It's been going on for a very long time, and I cannot understand why no one has put a stop to it,” Lee said.
Even if the proposal passes, the sheriff would have to approach the County Board for approval to go into a specific suburb. He said that's only fair to give a town's leaders time to make a case as to why intervention isn't needed.
Cook County Commissioners Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, and Edwin Reyes, D-Chicago, plan to file the ordinance this week and introduce it at next week's County Board meeting. Suffredin said the proposal is intended to help restore communities mired in scandal and mismanagement, which he said is a drag on the entire county.
Communities with high crime rates and inept or corrupt leaders often experience falling property values, which affect residents throughout the county, Suffredin said. In addition, the Sheriff's Office must devote more resources to provide police services in those communities.
“It's more than just Harvey, and the sheriff has been providing police powers in a number of communities in the years that I've been on the County Board,” Suffredin said. “It (the ordinance) has broad powers, but if we're at the point where this needs to be imposed, those broad powers are necessary. We're dealing with a total breakdown and anarchy within those communities on the financial and municipal management side.”
Meanwhile, Harvey's failure to file annual audits has become a political issue for state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.
For years, the comptroller's office — first under Democrat Dan Hynes and then Republican Topinka — has never used its full power under state law to commission auditors to review Harvey's books. Last year the office began fining Harvey, but the city is appealing the fines.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, a Democrat who is challenging Topinka for comptroller, blasted the incumbent for failing to force Harvey to comply with state law.
“We need a comptroller who will stand up when they suspect corruption and mismanagement,” Simon said in a statement this week.
When asked last week by the Tribune about Harvey's lack of audits, officials in Topinka's office said they “forwarded documents to legal authorities for review,” though they did not reveal what documents or to whom they were sent. Topinka spokesman Brad Hahn brushed aside Simon's attacks.
“We don't respond to nonsense,” he said.