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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.
The dispute comes as Preckwinkle campaigns to succeed Rahm Emanuel as Chicago’s mayor.
Emanuel does not reimburse City Hall for any travel to campaign-related events in Chicago, his administration confirmed, because “the mayor is the mayor wherever he goes in the city” and requires protection from Chicago police officers. Emanuel does, however, have a policy for reimbursing the city for expenses related to any political trips out of town.
In cases where Emanuel mixed both government and campaign business on a trip, the policy calls for the city to be reimbursed for the percentage of time on the trip that was related to politics. Emanuel’s travel guidelines, though, did not spell out what the mayor considered campaign business, leaving him wide discretion to determine what travel costs he would pay for and which ones taxpayers would pick up, without having to disclose what he did on the trips.
Records released by the county in response to a Tribune request show Preckwinkle has reimbursed the county just once as county board president. In that instance, the state had previously paid her for mileage after she attended a December 2016 meeting of presidential electors in Springfield, records show. Preckwinkle cut the county a check for $231.92, records show.
Schlikerman said in a statement that Preckwinkle “covers costs when the travel is for non-county business.” Asked for examples, Schlikerman said, “You have the response to the (records request). We are in compliance with all policies related to travel and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate.”
Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, who is also running for mayor, said Preckwinkle should reimburse the county for her political expenses.
“She doesn’t have a right as Cook County board president to use county resources and county personnel for personal gain,” Lightfoot said. “It’s very basic.”
Mayoral candidate Amara Enyia, a public policy consultant, echoed Lightfoot.
“If you’re campaigning and using a county vehicle, you certainly should reimburse the county because you’re using the vehicle for purposes outside your role as county board president,” Enyia said. “I definitely think that’s fair.”
The dispute with Blanchard over travel reimbursement is just the latest controversy for Preckwinkle involving her county security detail.
In October, Blanchard reported that a Chevy Tahoe assigned to her executive detail and used nearly exclusively by her security chief illegally was used to carry political materials.
Preckwinkle denied she authorized anyone to put campaign materials in the vehicle and fired her longtime security chief, Delwin Gadlen, in November, citing a review of the detail’s practices. Gadlen later told the Tribune that he thought she unfairly ousted him to protect herself and her mayoral ambitions, and he denied having anything to do with the materials.
Although Blanchard’s report did not find any wrongdoing by Preckwinkle’s office, the incident has become a political hot potato for Preckwinkle. An investigation by the inspector general into the SUV situation is ongoing.
Chicago Tribune reporter Bill Ruthhart contributed.