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Official gets no-confidence vote for questionable payments, expenses

Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County commissioners issued a no-confidence vote today against a suburban education official who a state auditor found repeatedly used a government credit card for personal expenses and approved questionable payments to relatives on his payroll.

The County Board’s unanimous vote comes in the wake of a state audit, first reported by the Sun-Times last week, that focused on Regional Supt. Charles A. Flowers and his state-funded office, which has amassed a nearly $1 million deficit.

“This is an example of flagrant corruption at its most heightened,” said Commissioner Liz Doody Gorman, a Republican from Orland Park. She introduced the no-confidence resolution and pressed — as the state’s top auditor has — for a criminal probe.

The regional education office Flowers runs issues teaching certificates, approves school calendars and reviews school districts’ finances in suburban Cook County.

The deficit that has run up under Flowers prompted state Auditor General William Holland to suggest the office might not “continue as a going concern” or be able to repay a $190,000 loan from Cook County that Flowers engineered last year with County Board President Todd Stroger’s help. That loan is due this month, and in the wake of the audit, the county has sent Flowers a letter reminding him of the deadline.

“I think it’s safe to say we’re not going to see that money,” said Commissioner Tony Peraica, a suburban Republican, adding that the state’s attorney’s office should aid the county in getting the payment repaid.

A year ago, when the county board OK'd the loan — Gorman was the only commissioner to object.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat, talked about his own vote to approve the loan last year: “We had no indication of these detailed and systematic problems. He said “Today it’s a different story.”

The state audit also questioned a $6,000 cash advance Flowers authorized for his administrative assistant — Barbara Flowers, his sister. Flowers’ nephew also was on his office’s payroll and was improperly paid for lunch breaks, the audit found.

And two high-level deputies of Flowers making more than $80,000 a year got consulting gigs of $9,400 and $12,000 to monitor state grants — which they did during their normal work hours.

“This is a very bad audit. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Holland said last week. He referred his findings to Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez for further investigation.

Flowers was elected in 2006 to a four-year term, but during today’s County Board meeting several commissioners asked for his resignation.

Flowers was not immediately available for comment today.

Of 40 credit card purchases Flowers made, 16 were for personal items, the audit found. Among the purchases, Holland noted, were airline tickets to fly Flowers' family members to Mississippi. He also withdrew $6,669 in cash advances on the credit card while in Illinois and Mississippi, ostensibly to purchase a vehicle and furniture for the regional office.

But Holland’s auditors found no evidence of the vehicle or furniture. And auditors could not verify Flowers’ claim that he repaid those advances from personal funds.

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