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Stroger: Preckwinkle should stop blaming me and look in the mirror

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle predecessor Todd Stroger. File photos

County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and predecessor Todd Stroger. File photos

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Updated: July 29, 2012 5:17PM

Former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger says he’s tired of hearing how the county’s woes — including the mess at the morgue — are his fault.

“I can’t take the blame for what’s going on — what is it? — 18 months after I’m gone,” Stroger said.

Stroger spoke with the Sun-Times on Wednesday in a wide-ranging phone interview about everything from the medical examiner’s office to how the bad press that dogged him during his tenure has made him “radioactive” to prospective employers.

“There’s lot of people who don’t want to return my calls, don’t want to open doors because they’re afraid they’re going to end up in the paper. It will say, ‘Stroger ruined this and now he’s working with these guys’” Stroger said.

His successor Toni Preckwinkle campaigned on NOT being Todd Stroger and has repeatedly pointed to him or his administration for the problems in county government. When the morgue fiasco flared up, Preckwinkle blamed a legacy of mismanagement — specifically two Stroger appointees.

After bodies started piling up, as first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, the finger pointing began with Preckwinkle blaming the “leadership” in place and long-term job vacancies. Last week it came to a head with the announcement that Chief Medical Examiner Nancy Jones would be retiring and the morgue’s top administrator, Kimberly Jackson — a Stroger family friend — was being shown the door. Both were promoted by Stroger.

“I think she and Dr. Jones are getting a raw deal by the [Preckwinkle] administration. I think they’ve been railroaded,” Stroger said.

Stroger said Jones was the obvious choice — and approved by the County Board — because she was not only a veteran of the medical examiner’s office but also a nationally recognized and respected forensic pathologist.

He promoted Jackson, already a morgue employee, in March 2010 — a month after losing re-election and a few short months before his term was over.

“She knew the office well — she seemed to have a good relationship with Dr. Jones — they worked together well,” he said.

But Preckwinkle’s staff saw Jackson as a lousy manager, ill-suited to run the morgue’s physical plant. Staff complained of an unrelenting stench and unsanitary conditions including blood and bodily fluids pooling in the body cooler and a lack of basic tools — including scalpels — to conduct autopsies.

Stroger said he thinks all the countywide budget cuts Preckwinkle has been patting herself on the back for since taking office in 2010 have taken their toll on the morgue. Some of that might have been mitigated had Preckwinkle had seasoned staff in her administration communicating with morgue staff, which is technically under the board president’s authority.

“That’s what you do when things aren’t going well, and you don’t want to tell the truth — and that is that you have a lot of inexperienced people [in the administration], and you’re pulling back revenue, and so now you have fewer workers and less dollars to work with. All of that is going to cause some problems, somewhere, at some time,” Stroger said.

And that has nothing to do with him — and he wishes Preckwinkle would be quiet and run the county.

“It’s easy for President Preckwinkle to try to point out people and say, ‘They worked for Todd Stroger, and we’re getting rid of them,’” Stroger said, adding: “Even though you’re telling yourself ‘it’s a political strategy so I can get people off my back’ there’s a point where you have to say ‘It’s me now, I’m the boss.’ Otherwise you’re not a leader, are you?”

Stroger says the media also went after him so anyone tied to him suffer in his wake.

“Since I got such a raw deal and have been blasted by the papers — even your paper would write things about me, true or not, and put [it] on the front page,” Stroger explained. “People who worked for me are [now] feeling the brunt of ‘he was no good.’”

The bad press — and Preckwinkle comments that are repeated in news reports — has created problems in his post-political career, or lack thereof.

While he hosts a radio show on WVON-AM (1690) on Tuesday nights, Stroger said he’s had a tough time finding full-time work.

“So now I find that people I would think would always be there for me aren’t there — because [they think] ‘you’re still radioactive’ or ‘we can’t deal with you because we’ll end up on the front page.’”

For now, Stroger is spending time with his wife and their son and daughter, 12 and 8, respectively. Having him go from a high-profile job to hanging around the house, helping with homework, has been an adjustment for the children.

“Even they’re like ‘you know what? You need to get out of the house. Get a real job, OK?’ They’re used to seeing me running around doing things,” he said, chuckling.

His wife Jeanine works for Secretary of State Jesse White’s office.

As he said when he was leaving office two years ago, Stroger is still going to pursue the insurance game. He is working to get his insurance license. At 49, he says he’s too young to retire and is not ruling out a return to politics.

Asked about the federal tax evasion indictment that family friend and political ally Cook County Commissioner William Beavers is facing, Stroger said he doesn’t believe it’s true and if there is a problem it was likely a “mistake.”

“I haven’t talked to him in awhile,” Stroger said, explaining the two had breakfast before the charges were announced but not since. “But I am going to call him up because I have learned that all people have to say is that [someone] is guilty, and everyone is afraid. But Beavers is the type of guy — I can’t imagine him making the kind of mistake they’re talking about. Or if he did — he didn’t do it in a malicious manner. It might be a true mistake, but he wouldn’t do something that would land him in jail knowingly.”

Beavers was indicted in U.S. District Court in February on allegations he failed to pay taxes on more than $226,000 in campaign funds and county expense account money he used gamble and boost his pension.

Stroger had little to say about a locker full of items belonging to him and his father — the late County Board President John H. Stroger — that was auctioned off this spring after someone failed to pay the storage fee.

The locker — full of gavels, photos, awards and even two replica Chicago Bulls championship rings — was sold by the locker company at public auction. The individual items will be resold at an auction this Saturday and Sunday in Elgin.

Stroger said he attempted to buy some of the items back, but it didn’t pan out.

“All I can tell you is I tried to contact that young man,” who bought the locker. “We were supposed to meet twice, and he never showed up.” People who never called me, called me about that incident. They were like ‘oh, man, we’ve got to get the stuff back,’” Stroger said, noting that his focus has been on providing for his family. “I’ve got a wife and two kids. They’ve got to eat, go to school and everything else.”

Stroger said it’s wonderful that his late father was so well-regarded, but he feels bitter about how things played out for him.

“My dad — he did some great things” that have been lauded, Stroger said. “but the rest of the world hasn’t been that kind [to me] so I haven’t really tried to be a real part of it — at the moment. But like everything else, you’ve got to get back in.”

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