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Toni Preckwinkle and county watchdog at odds over political travel reimbursements

Friday, January 11, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Gregory Pratt

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the inspector general are at odds over whether she should reimburse the county for security costs associated with her political travel.

In his office’s most recent quarterly report, Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard wrote that the county should be logging when government vehicles are used to transport Preckwinkle to political events and she should reimburse the county for related expenses.

But Preckwinkle, who is running for Chicago mayor, argues that her office entitles her to taxpayer-funded security.

Cook County’s vehicle policy prohibits the use of vehicles for any non-official county business, and the ethics code prohibits county property or resources to be used for political activity, Blanchard said.

“All government funds should be used only for official government purposes,” Blanchard said in an interview this week. “There’s a line in the sand when it comes to use of government resources and any deviation from that should always be the subject of scrutiny.”

He also said there needs to be a “better effort to create a process to delineate official business from non-county business, political or otherwise.” Blanchard said the county should be reimbursed for miles and employees’ time on the clock related to political activities.

Preckwinkle’s office maintains that the vehicle and security detail are used “solely for protection purposes and not political purposes.”

Preckwinkle spokeswoman Becky Schlikerman said in a statement that Preckwinkle is president of the county board “24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year.” She also said that previous board presidents have been given full use of security detail, the same as Preckwinkle.

“As part of this office, she is entitled to protective services. It’s insulting for anyone to suggest that President Preckwinkle, the first African-American woman elected to this office, would be entitled to less protection than the men acroacross the hall and the men who have previously held this office,” Schlikerman said. Schlikerman added that the president’s office is “in compliance with all policies related to travel and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate.” Elected officials have been known to disagree with the inspector general’s findings, recommendations and even the scope of his power. Blanchard and then-Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough clashed in April 2017 after he found that she hired U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’ nephew in violation of a ban on political hiring. She countered that Blanchard’s report was “much ado about nothing.”

When Blanchard investigated allegations that an employee of then-Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios took property tax exemptions he was ineligible to receive, Berrios balked, and a legal fight ensued over whether the inspector general had the authority to investigate the assessor’s office. The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately sided with Blanchard in December 2016.

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