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Cook County shells out $1.6 million to cover mistakes in federal grant applications

Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick


Cook County shells out $1.6 million to cover mistakes in federal grant applications

Cook County taxpayers will be out an extra $1.6 million after mistakes were made in seeking federal grant funding for the county Department of Homeland Security.

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Wednesday that the errors were discovered after she fired Ernest Brown from his post as the agency's executive director of homeland security and an internal investigation of the department was conducted.

Preckwinkle, however, said she did not dismiss Brown because of suspicions about financial issues. Instead, she was reacting to a media report of crimes committed by now-convicted police officers working in public housing during the 2000s, when Brown was their commander.

"I asked for his resignation," Preckwinkle said. "He declined to resign, so I fired him. I did so on the basis of information that I learned about his tenure in the Chicago Police Department. I lost confidence in his ability to lead the department (of Homeland Security)."

Brown was dismissed in November, and died in January of an apparent heart attack suffered at a South Loop restaurant.

The county found invoices that were not submitted to the state for federal grant reimbursement. Officials said the state oversees more than $21 million in Urban Area Security Initiative program grant funds the county receives each year.

Most of the $1.6 million in question was for training purposes for homeland security programs, and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency later denied reimbursement. The state agency said the expenses were ineligible "because the federal procurement guidelines were not followed and pre-approvals were not obtained," said Martha Martinez, who heads up the county's Bureau of Administration.

The County Board on Wednesday approved spending $1.6 million in local taxpayer money to cover the mistakes, though officials said they still hope to convince the state to pay about $534,000 that covered salaries.

Meanwhile, the county Homeland Security Department was placed under the supervision of the administration bureau. The county has hired two people and might hire two more to oversee the grant process. At least part of those salaries would be covered with grant funds, officials said.

And the Homeland Security Department, now being run by interim Executive Director Mark Edingburg, will have to prepare quarterly and annual reports on grant funding. "There are several layers of corrective action that are being taken," Preckwinkle told county commissioners before the vote.

Preckwinkle hired Brown in October 2015. At the time, he was police chief in west suburban Darien. While in the Chicago Police Department, he had climbed to the rank of chief of patrol and at one time was viewed as a possible contender for the superintendent's post.

From 2000 to 2002, Brown commanded Chicago police officers assigned to public housing. During those years, a sergeant and officer under his command were arrested and convicted of robbing a purported drug stash house of $20,000 in cash and what appeared to be 11 pounds of cocaine.

Brown's leadership of police in public housing and his relationship to later-convicted Sgt. Ronald Watts was noted in a story by Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute — a story about corrupt cops and the police code of silence that Preckwinkle said brought issues surrounding Brown to her attention.

Twitter @ReporterHal

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