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The Cook County Board of Review located at the Cook County Building in downtown Chicago, Monday, July 12, 2021. |

Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

A former employee of a Cook County agency sues over his firing, alleging retaliation

A former aide filed the whistleblower suit against Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele and her top aide in federal court last week.

A former aide to Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele has filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the county property-tax appeal agency, Steele and her top aide, court records show.

The ex-employee, Frank Calabrese, said he was an appeals analyst and communications director for Steele until he was fired in May — after talking about Steele and chief of staff Dan Balanoff with investigators for the county’s independent internal watchdog.

In the complaint filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, Calabrese also accused Steele and Balanoff of pressuring him “to engage in political activity” against the two other Board of Review commissioners, Larry Rogers Jr. and George Cardenas.

And Calabrese alleged in the lawsuit that he was punished for contacting the board’s top lawyer in February to seek advice after Steele asked him to draft and distribute a memo to county elected officials about the Chicago Bears’ property tax appeal for land the football team had bought in Arlington Heights.

Asked Monday about the suit, Steele told WBEZ, “There’s so many falsehoods in this document I don’t know where to begin. But under the advice of counsel, neither myself nor my staff will be commenting on this matter until it is resolved.”

Calabrese began working for the board in December 2022 and was paid nearly $89,000 a year, according to board records.

He said he was fired on May 20, after he sat for two interviews with investigators from the county’s Office of the Independent Inspector General, federal court records show.

Calabrese alleged in the lawsuit that investigators told him Steele and Balanoff were the targets of the probe and that they were “investigating many matters about them,” including the February incident involving the Bears property in the northwest suburbs.

Calabrese said Steele and Balanoff were interviewed by investigators in April, and that days after Steele was questioned by them, she “demanded that Calabrese tell her what he disclosed” to the inspector general’s office, according to the complaint.

Inspector General Tirrell J. Paxton, who was appointed last month, said, “We cannot comment on pending litigation or our investigations.”

Calabrese’s lawyer, Matt Custardo of Lisle, said he did not feel it would have been proper to disclose further details of the inspector general’s interviews with his client in the newly filed civil complaint.

“It’s a classic whistleblower case,” Custardo told WBEZ.

“The inspector general wanted to speak with him, he participated in those conversations, and Commissioner Steele learned about that, demanded ‘what did you tell them,’ Frank did not tell her and then is shortly thereafter terminated,” Custardo added. “I think that’s a huge component of this case.”

In an interview, Calabrese said county employees are required to cooperate with the inspector general or face discipline for not doing so.

“I complied with the inspector general, and for complying with the inspector general, I got fired by my boss,” Calabrese said. “It’s a really terrible situation.”

Frank Calabrese, a former aide to Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele

Frank Calabrese, a former aide to Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Samantha Steele, filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against the county property-tax appeal agency, Steele and her top aide, court records show.

Steele — who was elected in 2022 — has feuded with Rogers and Cardenas, with some of those tensions centered on what the property tax bill should be for the Bears at the old Arlington Park racetrack where they had considered building a new stadium.

Rogers and Cardenas declined to comment on Calabrese’s suit.

WBEZ reported last week that another employee in Steele’s office had a misdemeanor federal conviction for a tax-related charge and had testified in a corruption case in northwest Indiana against his brother, who was the mayor of Portage, Indiana. After a reporter contacted her about that aide, Jon Snyder, Steele said she would place him on unpaid administrative leave pending investigation.

Although Steele said Snyder should not be paid while under investigation, the board’s secretary said Tuesday he was actually “placed on emergency paid suspension” at Steele’s request.

But his brother, former Portage Mayor James Snyder, won a favorable ruling in his own case from the U.S. Supreme Court last week.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.

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