Stroger dismisses misconduct claims at county jobs program

April 5, 2011

Former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger says he was never alerted to any problems at a summer youth jobs program that is now the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

In an interview with WBEZ, Stroger dismissed claims of misconduct at the program made by current President Toni Preckwinkle's administration.  Stroger, who left office in December after losing to Preckwinkle in the Democratic primary, characterized himself as a political scapegoat and said Cook County government was in "good shape" when he left office.

Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed documents relating to eight people who worked in the scandal-tainted President's Office of Employment Training, dating back to Stroger's time in office. In recent years, the program been dogged by allegations of employees embezzling money, and the misuse of state and federal funds.

No one has been charged with any wrongdoing related to the current investigation.

Current President Toni Preckwinkle's administration says it found problems with the summer jobs program when it came into office but declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing criminal investigation. Stroger said then-POET director Karen Crawford, who was named in the subpoena, never told him about any problems. And he dismissed claims by current POET Director Karin Norington-Reaves, who said she found evidence "gross misconduct" when she took over in January.

"I don't really listen to rumors, and I don't really listen to people who've been there a day and make judgements about what's gone on for four years," Stroger said.

It is unlikely that the probe will reach any high-level county officials such as him self, Stroger said. But with 22,000 people on the county payroll, he said there's bound to be some misconduct.

Attempts to reach Crawford were unsuccessful.

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, according to the Preckwinkle administration, though a spokeswoman declined to give specifics.

Stroger also accused Preckwinkle of trying to capitalize on bad press he received during his final months in office in order to blame him for the county's problems.

"She's just trying to ride that wave," he said. "This is a political thing. It has nothing to do with government itself. ... When we left the county, it was in good shape."

In a statement, Preckwinkle spokeswoman Jessey Neves called Stroger's comments "ridiculous," and said his administration was alerted to problems with the jobs program several times, but failed to investigate them.