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Cook County elected official defends hiring her cousin as her chief of staff

Thursday, July 22, 2021
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin

A complaint that a Cook County elected official hired her first cousin as her chief of staff triggered an ethics inquiry earlier this year, but the official in question shot down calls Thursday for the relative to resign.

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt, of Palos Heights, elected last year when she beat Republican incumbent Dan Patlak, hired her cousin Todd Thielmann as the top staffer in her office.

Questions about the employment prompted an inquiry in May from the board’s ethics officer, who in a letter to Wendt noted the board’s ethics policy restricts the hiring of relatives of agency officials, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Tribune.

During a June board meeting, Wendt didn’t answer questions about the hiring and then voted against an amended ethics policy that would have more clearly prohibited such a hiring.

In a written statement to the Tribune on Thursday, Wendt also did not directly address whether Thielmann is her cousin, but she did not deny it.

She defended his hiring and said the criticism against it was part of a sexist, male-dominated work culture. She also said she consulted “one of the nation’s top election attorneys” who told her she did not violate policies.

“I hired the best person for the job who has extensive experience and qualifications, but also because I needed a ‘trusted confidant’ to help me navigate the system,” Wendt wrote. “I knew there would be obstacles placed before me as the ‘outsider.’”

Wendt did not respond to Tribune inquiries regarding Thielmann’s salary, although that is a matter of public record. The agency did not immediately respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for that.

Thielmann declined comment and deferred to Wendt’s statement.

The three-commissioner Board of Review is tasked with managing property tax assessment appeals. Fellow Commissioner Michael Cabonargi released a statement earlier Thursday calling for Wendt’s chief of staff to be fired and for the county’s independent inspector general’s office to launch an investigation.

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“This flagrant nepotism flies in the face of the transparency and good government that Cook County taxpayers deserve,” Cabonargi said.

Under Cook County’s ethics ordinance, no officials can participate in the hiring of their own relative, including first cousins, to work at an agency over which they have authority. The Board of Review has a separate ethics policy, which the Tribune has requested under the Freedom of Information Act, that was cited in the May letter to Wendt.

The letter does not say whether the ethics policy included a definition for relative, and the ethics officer did not respond to a request for comment. But the code was amended following a contentious June 29 meeting.

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During that meeting, Cabonargi introduced an amendment to the agency’s ethics policy that would expand the definition of “family” to include a variety of immediate and extended family members — including first cousins.

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt has been criticized for hiring her cousin to be her chief of staff.

Wendt responded with complaints that Cabonargi and Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. discussed the changes without including her, which she said was in violation of the Open Meetings Act — a characterization Cabonargi later said was a “false allegation.” She said the amendment requires outside counsel for review because the board does not have attorneys who specialize in that area.

Rogers shot back: “Commissioner Cabonargi’s an attorney. I’m an attorney. You’re an attorney.” After some more back-and-forth, Rogers then asked Wendt if she was aware of any potential violations of the ethics policy should the amendment go through.

“I’m not on trial here, Larry,” Wendt said. Rogers continued to press her, and she responded, “I would have to consult with an attorney before I answer that question.”

“Are you asking if I’m violating the ethics policy? Absolutely not. Are you, Mike? Are you, Commissioner Rogers?” Wendt said after more arguing.

“No,” Cabonargi said. “So you’re saying right now that you have not hired and are employing a chief of staff who is a first cousin?”

Wendt replied she was not answering their questions and asked whether Rogers’ cousin worked for either of the other two commissioners, which Cabonargi denied and Rogers did not answer. She then implied those two also made questionable hiring decisions.

In a Thursday statement, Cabonargi clarified that he had in fact hired Rogers’ cousin to work for him, but Cabonargi said he does not believe he violated the ethics ordinance because Rogers had no hand in the hiring and does not manage the employee in question. Cabonargi said he did not know the employee was related to Rogers when he was hired.

During a roll call vote at the end of the quarrel, Cabonargi and Rogers voted yes and Wendt voted no, allowing the amendment to pass. But afterward, there were further accusations flung, including by Wendt saying the two “have been nothing but bullies. … I don’t know if it’s because I’m a female.”

“All my staff were hired for their qualifications, every one of them,” Wendt said. “And I’m not in violation of any policies. OK? So stop saying that.”

In Wendt’s Thursday statement, she also made unspecified claims characterizing the scrutiny on her chief of staff as a distraction from other alleged wrongdoing going on in the Board of Review.

“This an attempt to silence me. ... I did not hire who was sent to me nor do I owe any political favors,” said Wendt, an attorney from Palos Heights who was on the defense team of Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago officer convicted of murder in the shooting of Laquan McDonald. “The effort to change the BOR Ethics policy is an obvious attempt to control and silence me while ignoring other practices that are not in the public’s best interest.”

Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt contributed.

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