Feds probe Cook County’s troubled job training program
BY LISA DONOVAN Cook County Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org March 30, 2011 10:34PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation into Cook County’s long-troubled job training program, documents obtained by the Sun-Times reveal.
In a March 1 subpoena, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office ordered the county to turn over records for the 2009 and 2010 summer youth jobs program — run at the time by former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger — to a grand jury by this Friday.
The subpoena, a copy of which was obtained by the Sun-Times, also orders the county to hand over personnel and overtime records along with e-mail files dating to 2009 for eight current and former staffers in the county’s President’s Office of Employment Training, or POET.
“The accompanying federal grand jury subpoena seeks records pursuant to an official criminal investigation,” Fitzgerald wrote in a letter sent with the subpoena.
Authorities are also seeking documentation that would show when seven of the workers logged into county computers from Jan. 27 to the present.
Those seven were suspended in late January and early February after the launch of an internal investigation. One of the staff members has since been fired, current POET director Karin Norington-Reaves said. Disciplinary cases are pending against four of the staffers, while two others remain on suspension, she said.
The eighth employee named in the subpoena is Karen Crawford, POET’s director from 2006 until last June. She served as Stroger’s chief of staff during his final months in office last year. She left the county after Stroger’s term ended in December. She could not be reached for comment.
None of the other staffers named in the subpoenas could be reached for comment, including Brendolyn Hart-Glover, a field operations manager; Patricia Gistarb, a regional manager; Crystal Bland, an administrative coordinator; Gwen Lawson, an administrative assistant, and employment training specialists Judi McClenahan, Kamica Thurmond and Tasha Willis.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to elaborate on the investigation Wednesday. No criminal charges have been filed in connection with the probe.
The inspector general for the U.S. Labor Department — which funds POET — is also involved in the investigation. A Chicago-based agent working on the probe couldn’t be reached for comment.
Norington-Reaves, a onetime state official hired in January by new County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case because of the pending federal investigation.
But she acknowledged she had been alerted to problems almost immediately upon taking office two months ago, which led to the internal investigation.
“What was disclosed to me were very serious allegations of gross misconduct and that . . . led me to believe we had a very serious problem,” Norington-Reaves said. Pressed about details, she would only say, “There were some irregularities in the 2009, 2010 summer youth program.”
Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, who is also investigating, declined to comment Wednesday.
POET has long been plagued with problems, from staffers sent to prison for on-the-job theft to accounting irregularities that lead to the county returning $8.4 million in federal job training money between 2003 and 2008.
The summer jobs programs has also come under fire: In 2009, federal grant money was frozen amid allegations that some of the 16- to 24-year-old employees in the program weren’t getting paid.