| A Cook County Forest Preserve payroll clerk was charged Thursday with doctoring overtime records so forest preserve police officers could get extra money and give her kickbacks. |
The theft charges against Rochelle Porter, 34, a precinct captain for Cook County Board President John Stroger, may be just the first to come out of a more than yearlong investigation of payroll-padding at the controversial police agency. As many as 10 officers have been questioned or are being looked at for allegedly conspiring with Porter to get paid overtime for hours they did not work.
"She altered the times for a number of police officers so they were paid far in excess of the time they actually worked," said Jerry Lawrence, a spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney's office. Prosecutors said she was responsible for data entry and that the scheme took place from June 2000 until August 2002. Investigators began eyeing the department in August 2002 after forest preserve officials reported bookkeeping irregularities to the county's inspector general.
"It happened one time and the others saw how easy it was to do this and partook,'' a source close to the investigation said. The amounts varied from officer to officer.
Porter, who joined the department in June 1995, was arrested by state's attorney investigators at her Calumet Park home Wednesday.
Sources said prosecutors expect to charge more people in the department.
"This employee has been suspended without pay," Stroger said. "The Forest Preserve District will seek not only to dismiss this employee, but to recover any funds involved."
Just a month ago, federal prosecutors indicted two current members and one former member of the Cook County Forest Preserve police for allegedly stealing money from what they believed to be drug dealers' cars.
Some county board members have argued that the Forest Preserve Police Department, once one of the largest in the state with 130 officers, could be eliminated to save millions of dollars -- its duties picked up by the Cook County sheriff and other police agencies.
"This is further evidence of the corruption in the forest preserves," said Cook County Board member Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago). "It is more evidence supporting our reform budget, which would ... replace the forest preserve police with professionals." A deficit brought on by a series of financial scandals and tax caps led officials this year to thin the ranks of officers to 67 responsible for 68,000 acres.
"I think we laid too many police officers off," Stroger said Wednesday. "Everybody who kills their wife or girlfriend dumps their body off in the Forest Preserves." Stroger argues only a force specially dedicated to the forest preserves will do the job right. The fewer officers patrolling the preserves, the less safe people will feel, he said. Porter was being held on $50,000 bond.