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Three Cook Co. employees charged in bilking scheme

Saturday, January 26, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Cook County's scandal-plagued President's Office of Employment Training received another black eye Friday as three of its employees appeared in court, charged with participating in a scheme that bilked taxpayers and banks out of more than $2 million.

Prosecutors charged that the three, who were managers in the office, knowingly allowed a company, United Front Inc., to claim from 2002 to 2004 that it was training disadvantaged and minority applicants in carpentry skills and placing them in jobs, when in fact little or no training was being done. The company collected up to $4,500 for each "trainee."

The managers and five employees of United Front appeared in court Friday.

One of the county defendants, regional manager Ronald Harper, strongly asserted his innocence through his attorney, saying his role was the same as that of several Cook County commissioners and former County Board President John H. Stroger -- simply touring a United Front training site.

Harper's attorney, his son Amiel Harper, said one of the commissioners at that tour was Deborah Sims. He didn't know which other commissioners attended. Stroger died last Friday.

Sims, who once employed Ronald Harper's wife, Deborah, on her staff, said she doesn't remember visiting any such work site and that she had nothing to do with United Front getting certified with the county.

The company was certified and working with the county employment training program before she ever got elected in 1994, Sims said. She said she recommended Harper to John H. Stroger for a job, but had no further involvement with his employment.

Harper was a political campaign donor to both John H. Stroger and Sims.

Neither Sims nor Stroger is accused of any wrongdoing.

The employment training office last came under fire in 2005 when Shirley Glover, a fiscal manager of the group, was charged and eventually convicted of embezzling money from the office.

The Cook County state's attorney announced the new charges Friday against Harper; Rudolph Sanchez, the office's former executive director; and Roberto Rivera, its former regional deputy director.

Cook County assistant state's attorneys Robert Podlasek and Dianne Ghaster said the group did little or no training and used the county office's certification to get contracts with Chicago's Office of Workforce Development and the Housing Authority of Cook County. It also used the contracts it obtained as documentation to obtain bank loans, they said.

Rivera and Sanchez, the charges allege, placed improper pressure on the training office's employees to certify United Front, even though they were told repeatedly the group's initial application was substandard and training was deficient or nonexistent.

Rivera, 56, of Berwyn, and Harper, 56, of Hazel Crest, had initial court appearances Friday along with employees and officers of United Front Inc.: Charles Koen, 65, of Cairo; Alex Brooks, 78, of Cairo; Joyce Norfleet, 61, of Chicago; and Dorothy Taylor, 49, of Chicago.

Sanchez, 64, of Rio Rancho, N.M., was arrested in that state and is awaiting extradition. Another defendant and United Front employee, Ronnie Marshall, 42, of Milwaukee, is missing and being sought, authorities said.

Rivera and Sanchez are no longer employed with the county, and Harper was fired Friday, said Cook County spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi.

Koen, the managing director of United Front, was convicted in 1991 of embezzlement, mail fraud, theft and arson in St. Louis. He ran a similar scheme there, defrauding a federal job training partnership program. The arson count involved a bank he burned down in an attempt to destroy records.

Rivera's attorney -- who did not stop to talk to media or give his name after appearing in court -- asked Judge Laura Sullivan for a "reasonable" bond for Rivera, saying there were no allegations that his client received any money. Rivera was ordered held on $100,000 bond.

Ben Myers, an attorney for Dorothy Taylor, sought a "reasonable" bond for his client and minimized any role she played. She was ordered held on $65,000 bond.

Amiel Harper said his father "had no decision-making power whatsoever" in the office. The elder Harper was held on $100,000 bond.

Others appearing in court Friday were represented by a public defender. Norfleet received a $75,000 bond, Koen received a $500,000 bond, and Brooks received a $250,000 bond.

All defendants will appear in court again Feb. 8.



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