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County commissioners weigh-in on POET probe

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

As a federal criminal investigation in to Cook County’s long-troubled jobs program gets underway, elected leaders say the probe offers a window in to yet another mess Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle inherited from predecessor Todd Stroger when she took office in December.

As first reported in the Sun-Times, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald subpoenaed records for the 2009 and 2010 summer youth jobs program run by the President’s Office of Employment Training (POET) — under Stroger’s authority.

While federal authorities have been tight-lipped about the probe, officials confirm the U.S. Department of Labor — which funds local government job training programs like POET — is part of the investigation.

“If you think about it, it can’t be a surprise to anyone considering the lackadaisical attitude of the prior administration when it came to this program,” said Commissioner Liz Gorman, a southwest suburban Republican.

She and Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin, who represents Chicago’s far North Side, say Preckwinkle and her new POET officials are working to get POET back on track, necessary when nearly one in eight in the region are without work.

“I trust President Preckwinkle will get this program back on track so citizens in need of job training will get it — and they need it with unemployment figures so high,” Suffredin said.

Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Northwest suburban Republican, said that while “cleaning up the mess” is critical, “that is simply not enough.”

“If there has been waste and criminal activity in the past, those involved must be fully prosecuted,” he said, noting that the federal investigation is welcome and overdue. Schneider cited a number of problems he’s seen over the years – including 25 to 30 percent of a grant going solely to administrative costs in POET.

In a copy of a March 1 subpoena obtained by the Sun-Times, the U.S. Attorney’s office notified the county of a “criminal investigation” and ordered officials to turn over a range of documents including personnel and overtime records along with e-mail files dating to 2009 for eight current and former POET staffers.

Among the eight named in the subpoena is Karen Crawford, POET’s director from 2006 to roughly 2010. She also served as Stroger’s chief of staff during his final months in office last year, but was swept out of her county job along with other Stroger political appointees when Preckwinkle took office last year.

The other seven staffers, whose work computer log-in and log-off records are also being sought as part of the federal investigation, were suspended at the end of January and beginning of February after Preckwinkle’s new POET director noticed problems and the county’s Inspector General was called in to investigation what has only been described as “misconduct.”

Crystal Bland, an administrative coordinator at POET, was fired while the six other staffers remain on suspension, including: Brendolyn Hart-Glover, who served a stint as interim POET director in 2010 and was a field operations manager; Patricia Gistarb, a regional manager; Gwen Lawson, an administrative assistant, and employment training specialists Judi McClenahan, Kamica Thurmond and Tasha Willis.

Karin Norington-Reaves was tapped by Preckwinkle to become POET’s new director in January. While she couldn’t comment on the pending federal investigation, Norington-Reaves acknowledged finding problems almost immediately, triggering the county IG probe.

“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.”

POET, a $14 million-a-year program serving the south and west suburbs, 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.

This isn’t the first time POET’s summer jobs program, aimed at lining up paid jobs and internships for teens to 20-year-olds in local government and the private sector, has come under fire. In 2009, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity – the agency with oversight authority over the local government jobs program - froze $2.35 million in grant money meant for POET after an investigation raised questions about spending and accounting practices in the office. That same year, the summer jobs program came under fire amid allegations that some of the 16- to 24-year-old employees in the program weren’t getting paid.

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