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Assessor's missing cash starts inquiry
Account is $170,000 short, manager fired

Friday, January 19, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County prosecutors are investigating $170,000 missing from an account in the county assessor's office that led to the firing of a department manager, according to documents and authorities.

The county's auditor notified Assessor James Houlihan by letter last year that her staff was unable to complete an audit of his Freedom of Information Fee Account because some documents were missing, others were altered and record keeping was inadequate.
Houlihan informed the County Board's Audit Committee that State's Atty. Richard Devine's office had taken over the investigation.

"We have been in contact with the assessor's office and are reviewing the information we received from them," John Gorman, Devine's spokesman, said Thursday.

In a July 7 letter obtained by the Tribune, county auditor Laura Burman told Houlihan that "bank statements appeared to have been altered in an attempt to cover up withdrawals that had been made from the FOI bank account."

Burman said auditors were unable to account for $170,233.96 in funds over a four-year period ending Nov. 30, 2005.

In a July 10 letter to the County Board's Audit Committee, Houlihan said the manager of the Freedom of Information Department told his staff that she had no knowledge of the missing money. But Houlihan's letter said his office confirmed there had been inappropriate withdrawals from the account and that all of the withdrawal slips "were signed by the then manager of the Freedom of Information Department."

Four days later, the manager was fired for failing to properly manage her department, according to Houlihan's letter.

Houlihan spokesman Lucio Guerrero said the former manager, Joyce Pierce, worked for the assessor's office for eight years and made $78,000 at the time of her termination. Pierce has not been charged with any crime. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Guerrero said the assessor's office gave a copy of the audit to the state's attorney's office.

"We are cooperating with the investigation," Guerrero said Thursday.

Guerrero said changes have been made in the department to prevent future problems. A new bank account that requires two signatures for withdrawals was opened, cameras were installed over the cash register and new software was installed for the cashiering system.

The account holds fees for public documents such as taxpayer records that the office provides under the Freedom of Information Act.

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