Feds probe scandal-plagued Cook County jobs program

March 31, 2011

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Todd Stroger (photo by David Schalliol)

A troubled Cook County jobs training program is the subject of a federal criminal investigation, according to documents obtained by WBEZ.

In a March 1 subpoena sent to the office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, the U.S Attorney's Office asks for documents, emails and personnel files relating to eight people who worked for the President's Office of Employment Training. The documents are set to go before a federal grand jury in Chicago on Friday, according to a copy of the subpoena obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The subpoena shows federal prosecutors are asking for files related to a scandal-plagued summer jobs program for young people, dating back to the administration of former Board President Todd Stroger. But it's unclear exactly why the jobs program is being investigated by the federal government.

"As far as I know, it is specifically focusing on the summer youth program," said Karin Norington-Reaves, who now heads up POET.

Both POET and the youth program in particular have come under fire in the past.

In August 2009, the State of Illinois froze $5.6 million related to the youth program, alleging some young people were never paid for their work. But the federal criminal investigation goes beyond kids not getting paid, said Norington-Reaves, though she would not elaborate.

Norington-Reaves said she first became aware of problems when she took the helm at POET in January.

"Upon further investigation, [I] found things that indicated to me that there had been some gross misconduct," she said.

Seven of the employees named in the subpoena were suspended without pay shortly after Norington-Reaves took charge, she said. The eighth - former director Karen Crawford - had already left her county job.

In the past, POET has struggled with employees accused of stealing money, and the mismanagement of federal funds.

Preckwinkle spokeswoman Jessey Neves would not comment more specifically on the scope of the federal probe, citing the ongoing criminal investigation. And a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office wouldn't comment.

But Preckwinkle's administration was alerted to problems with the program when it took control of the county in December 2010, said Neves.

Stroger was unable to be reached for comment.