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Cook County official sued by ethics board for ‘flagrantly’ defying nepotism ban fires her cousin as chief of staff, he says

Saturday, June 11, 2022
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt’s cousin is no longer employed as her chief of staff, he told the Tribune Friday, following a monthslong feud between Wendt and the county ethics board that recently spilled into the courts.

Todd Thielmann confirmed in a text Friday evening he was: “Terminated by Commissioner Wendt. No reason given.” He did not answer follow-up questions, and Wendt did not respond to calls and messages seeking comment.

She had previously said the outcry over her cousin’s hiring is “an attempt to silence me” because she “did not hire who was sent to me.” Meanwhile, Thielmann has told the Tribune he “will continue to manage Commissioner Wendts staff and do my job until she fires me.”

Firing Thielmann was one of the demands the Cook County Board of Ethics laid on Wendt when it sued her May 31. The board also seeks payment of the $2,000 fine it imposed when it originally found she “flagrantly” violated the nepotism ban.

 

The lawsuit also calls for Thielmann to reimburse the county for all the compensation he earned working under Wendt, who most recently gave him a $150,000 salary, according to the public records. He did not respond to whether he would repay the wages he received over 1 ½ years on the job.

Wendt, a Democrat from Palos Heights who ousted a Republican incumbent in 2020, is running for reelection to the property tax appeals board and faces Chicago 12th Ward Ald. George Cardenas in the June 28 Democratic primary. She was also one of the defense attorneys for Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago police officer convicted of murder in the shooting of Laquan McDonald.

 

Thielmann was hired in December 2020, immediately after his cousin took office, public records show. His employment sparked outcry last year from the other two commissioners on the tax appeal body as well as a probe from the Cook County Office of the Independent Inspector General, which found that Wendt violated the ethics ordinance and should remove her cousin from his post.

Then in March, the county’s ethics board ruled Wendt both violated a county ban on hiring relatives and failed to uphold her “fiduciary duty” to the county because she was still employing her cousin despite being given several notices about the nepotism ban.

In her April appeal of the ethics board’s findings, Wendt attempted to make the case that the countywide ethics ordinance does not apply to her because the Board of Review has a separate policy. The ethics board said Wendt’s argument was “meritless” because the county’s ethics ordinance applies to all its government employees and supersedes any rules by individual agencies such as the Board of Review.

At the time of Thielmann’s hiring, the countywide code banned the hiring of first cousins among other relatives, while the Board of Review’s rules did not include first cousins. The other two Board of Review commissioners have since amended their policy following the public flap over Thielmann’s employment.

After Wendt continued to defy the ethics board, it filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court, naming Wendt and Thielmann as defendants.

“Commissioner Wendt has flagrantly violated the Cook County ethics ordinance by hiring her first cousin into a senior position in her office, and she has steadfastly refused to comply with the order requiring her to correct that violation,” Thomas Szromba, chair of the Board of Ethics, wrote in a statement then. “Orders from the Board of Ethics cannot simply be ignored.”

ayin@chicagotribune.com



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