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Deposition reveals politics were at work

Sunday, March 16, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Critics of the Cook County inspector general's office have long argued that politics has interfered with the office's zeal in investigating corruption.

But seldom has that acknowledgment come from the office itself.

However, in a recent court deposition, an inspector in the office acknowledged that politics played a role in at least one investigation of a "huge issue."

The deposition also revealed that despite the fact that an unqualified political donor from the city's 8th Ward was hired as an architect and put the public at risk, the inspector general did not recommend the firing of a patronage chief whom the woman's boss said ordered her hired.

Inspector General Investigator Jean Harlow was deposed July 2, 2007, but that deposition was only recently made public as part of a court file in a federal lawsuit filed by former Cook County employee Tobi Williams.

Williams alleges she was fired for political reasons on a trumped-up charge of misappropriating less than $200. In an attempt to prove her case, her attorney Keith L. Hunt discussed with Harlow other inspector general investigations alleging much more serious violations that did not result in firings.

Chief among them were investigations into the county's former patronage boss, Gerald Nichols, who Harlow said was investigated at least six different times.

One of those cases involved the hiring of an 8th Ward donor as an architect when she was not licensed as an architect with the state. Despite the testimony to the inspector general by the county's building commissioner that he had told Nichols the woman was unqualified, and that Nichols ordered her hired anyway, the inspector general did not sustain a finding against Nichols.

"If you have an unlicensed architect and they pass a building plan, and that building collapses, you could end up with hundreds of people injured, correct?" Hunt asked.

"Correct," Harlow said, who also termed the infraction "a huge issue."

Harlow said they never substantiated the claims against Nichols because it came down to "one person's word against the other."

"Did you feel that there were politics played in reaching that result?" Hunt said.

"Yes," Harlow replied.

Reached Friday, Harlow declined to comment.

In her deposition, Harlow did not recall if her boss at the time of the architect investigation was James Whigham or the current inspector general, Joseph Price. But she said at one point that things hadn't changed all that much between the two.

Price could not be reached for comment Friday, but in the past has pointed to the indictment of county employees for theft in the president's office of employment training as proof the office is rooting out corruption.

Harlow said the inspector general also investigated former human resources chief Mark Kilgallon, now the county's chief administrative officer. That probe was in connection to the Nichols hiring queries.

Harlow was not asked if the accusations were substantiated, but Kilgallon told commissioners May 2, 2007, at a public meeting that he had been informed by the U.S. attorney's office that he was not a target of their investigation into county hiring fraud.

The office also found unsubstantiated accusations that Chief Financial Officer Donna Dunnings was aware of an employee's political activities on county time, Harlow said.

Also investigated was Kim David Gilmore, once the head of human resources who has since left the county. Harlow said those accusations, regarding political hiring violations, were found unsubstantiated.

Nichols left county government after current board President Todd Stroger made a campaign pledge while running for office to fire him.

"Anyone can make any accusations they want to," said county spokesman Gene Mullins when asked about the investigations.

He said the incidents went back to the previous administration of John Stroger, which Todd Stroger was not involved in. He said the administration has been the moving force behind the effort to install an independent inspector general and that the president supports change in the office.

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