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Officials want to trim commissioners’ expense accounts, prohibit booze spending

12-5-2010 Scenes from Swearing day for Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle special meeting County Board. Cook County Commissioner Jeffery

12-5-2010 Scenes from Swearing in day for Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle at a special meeting of the County Board. Cook County Commissioner Jeffery Tobolski Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: May 17, 2012 8:10AM

It’s time to rein in the thousands of dollars in taxpayer money commissioners spend on expenses, several Cook County leaders say.

Beyond their $85,000-a-year salary, commissioners also have access to expense money — known by some critics as a slush fund — to pay for everything from work-related meals to parking to car leasing fees. But current county law doesn’t even officially ban the use of the money on booze.

Also, commissioners currently get reimbursed for the expenses before anyone even checks to see whether they are proper.

The changes, expected to be introduced at Tuesday’s board meeting, will give county laws some “teeth,” said Commissioner Jeff Tobolski. “ … We should never be purchasing alcohol with public money.”

Currently, it’s simply a guideline under county ethics ordinance: “Reimbursement for alcoholic beverages should not be sought.” But the proposal would formally prohibit commissioners from using the money to purchase alcohol under county ordinance.

While he can’t point to any abuses of expense money, Tobolski, a west suburban Democrat, said the push to fix the expense account rules comes as fellow Commissioner William Beavers faces a federal indictment for failing to report or pay taxes on expense money he allegedly pocketed. Beavers denies wrongdoing.

The expenses come out of the commissioners’ $360,000 office budget — money that largely pays for theirs and staff salaries. Some commissioners have asked to set aside up to $15,000 annually for contingencies, while others have decided not to use any taxpayer funds for expenses, Tobolski said, noting he doesn’t seek such reimbursements.

One of the biggest changes calls for commissioners to turn in their receipts, mileage logs and other documentation to the head of the ethics board before the county cuts a check for reimbursement. Right now, commissioners are reimbursed — and then the ethics board reviews the documentation.

In addition, Tobolski said the measure would curb the use of taxpayer money to pay for classes taken for undergraduate or post-graduate degrees.

Cook County Commissioner Liz Doody Gorman, a southwest suburban Republican, has faced criticism in the past for using taxpayer money to pay for tuition-related costs as she earns her MBA from the University of Notre Dame.

“It’s been an issue,” Gorman acknowledged. “I’ve only been minimally reimbursed for syllabuses and whatnot and classes that are geared toward my job as commissioner,” she said, listing finance and statistic classes as examples. “I pay for a substantial portion of it.”

She said she supports the proposed changes — and expects to continue receiving reimbursement checks for coursework tied to her job.

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