Lame-duck Cook County Board President Todd
Stroger's administration faces an internal investigation over a new
controversy involving eight no-bid contracts handed out last month, all
for just less than the $25,000 threshold requiring county board
"We're looking at a number of contracts," confirmed Cook
County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, as part of an investigation
into "issues related to Carla Oglesby," the embattled Stroger deputy
chief of staff and former campaign spokeswoman. Oglesby prompted the
latest controversy with the finding that she had hired firms with
dubious credentials to conduct census outreach - some for $24,995, just
$5 below the limit to come before the county board.
County Commissioner Timothy Schneider, a Bartlett
Republican, Thursday called on Cook County State's Attorney Anita
Alvarez to look into the so-called "24-nine" contracts.
"Many of these firms were only created in the last 30 to
60 days," Schneider said of the contractors. "They were created simply -
it seems to me - for the purpose of being able to accept a 24-nine
Alvarez recently trumpeted an "Operation Cookie Jar"
operation aimed at government malfeasance, but a spokeswoman for her
office said she could not comment on any potential investigation.
Eugene Mullins, Stroger's director of communications,
said he was comfortable with the firms chosen. "She's a communications
person," he said of Oglesby. "That's what she's done all her life. So I
have no doubt about the firms she recommended." He said he couldn't
address reports that one of the firms, Citymerge, was run by a felon.
Oglesby is already under investigation for issuing a
$24,975 contract to her own public-relations firm in the days
immediately after she was hired in February, after Stroger's defeat in
the Democratic primary.
Evanston Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin said
the contracts doled out by Oglesby look like copies "and some of the
invoices look to be on the same template."
Oglesby was suspended without pay earlier this month by
Stroger, who said she would be off the job until an investigation was
completed, but she was back on the job in five days, while the
investigation is ongoing.
While Suffredin said Oglesby's contract to her own CGC
Communications was a clear conflict of interest, the other firms
deserved to be investigated simply because they didn't appear to be
reputable, he said.
"I've never heard of any of the firms. There's no
reputation to know," he said. He added that, while some claimed to have
done work in the northern suburbs he represents, "I'm not aware of
anybody going door to door on that."
"I don't know who they are," echoed Chicago Democratic
Commissioner John Daley, chairman of the finance committee, calling the
whole incident "pretty embarrassing."
Mullins, however, said he worked with the groups in the
field and has no doubt about the contracted work being documented and
done. "I was out there," he said. "Just because he hasn't heard about it
doesn't mean it didn't happen."
Stroger's office insisted the latest deals were paid
with federal census money that needed to be spent.
"It's still taxpayers' money, and all of these grants
are grants that need to be accounted for," Suffredin said. "If we don't
perform the work, we can be on the line for it."
Suffredin pointed out most of the census-outreach
contracts were completed on the quick last month, apparently to skirt a
requirement enacted May 4 requiring all of Stroger's expenditures be
submitted to the county board with 72 hours for inspection.
"The majority of them were paid out the day after they
were entered into," he said.
"I believe there's clear intent to avoid the
accountability process of going before the county board," Schneider
added. His Republican colleague Tony Peraica, of Riverside, has called
Stroger's lame-duck spending a "going-out-of-business sale," and
Schneider called the census contracts "going-out-of-business on
"If you're talking about one $24,900 contract, that's
one thing," Suffredin said. Pointing out that eight added up to almost
$200,000, he added, "These things can run up."