Nearly $100,000 in Cook County funds unaccounted for

September 28, 2012

Quinn Ford

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)

Nearly $100,000 of contingency funds spent by Cook County board members is unaccounted for, according to a report released by the county’s inspector general, Patrick Blanchard.

Contingency funds are meant to cover work-related expenses for county board commissioners, and commissioners are required to document how the money was spent.    

But the report released Wednesday states certain commissioners failed to do that from May 2009 through May 2012. Of the $360,586 doled out by the county comptroller’s office, commissioners failed to submit expense reports or receipts to account for $98,039.

Inspector General Patrick Blanchard said his office would not disclose the names of the specific commissioners responsible, and since the time period stretches back to 2009, some of those expenses could belong to past commissioners.

Commissioner John Fritchey said he is not surprised by the report.

“It reflects what we knew to be the case which was there was some problems and potential abuses in the use of the contingency funds,” Fritchey said. “It should be kept in mind that nobody is being accused of wrongdoing per se, but simply taking advantage of the ‘lax’ rules that were in place prior to this administration.”

Fritchey said new ethics rules that took effect in June now require board members to submit documentation of the expenses before they receive money. The new ordinance also allows the city comptroller to bar commissioners from receiving contingency funds if they fail to document how the money was spent.

Fritchey said he has used the funds in the past to pay for a portion of his car lease, but he said he no longer does that.

The report listed several recommendations, one of which was asking the county to consider whether commissioners should be allowed to spend the funds on assets like automobiles that are for both personal and business use.

The report also recommended creating a policy when it comes to business meals or other activities with outside parties. The report suggested the county should require commissioners to disclose names and the nature of the meeting.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin said he has asked his legal counsel to meet with Blanchard to go over his recommendations, so they can be presented at next Tuesday’s council meeting.

“I think we have to go with all of his recommendations,” Suffredin said, adding he thinks there are amendments that could be added to the new ethics ordinance.

Suffredin said he does not expense anything to the contingency fund and added he does not think board members need the funds to run their offices.

Board President Toni Preckwinkle commented on the report in an email statement:

“I have received a copy of the Inspector General’s report  and will consider his recommendations with my team, including the Ethics Department and Comptroller’s Office and will solicit input from the Board of Commissioners,” Preckwinkle said. “I agree with the Inspector General that the ordinance commissioners passed in June was an important first step to correcting problems encountered with the use of contingency funds."

On Friday, Preckwinkle told WBEZ's Morning Shift that the unaccounted for sum is significant but small, saying, "What you have to remember is we have a $3 billion budget, so while we of course need to require our commissioners to be accountable for the money they spend, our issues are really elsewhere. They’re not the $100,000 that are in the commissioners expense account."

Blanchard said all the acts in the report occurred under the old ethics ordinance, which he said did not clearly outline consequences for failing to report how the funds were spent.

Blanchard said the first recommendation though is to require commissioners to submit documentation of how the money was spent or return that money.