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Report: Nearly $100,000 in unacccounted Cook County commissioner expenses

Cook County Board chambers. File Photo.  | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

Cook County Board chambers. File Photo. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:36AM

A controversial expense fund available to Cook County commissioners to cover the cost of anything from work-related meals to car leasing has gotten yet another black eye.

A number of Cook County commissioners received thousands of dollars in expense money, even though they didn’t submit either the required expense reports or receipts or both, according to a report issued Wednesday by county Inspector General Patrick Blanchard.

Nearly $100,000 was paid out to several commissioners in the last three years that remains unaccounted for. That’s nearly one-third of the $360,000-plus in expense money paid to commissioners during that same time frame. In one case, a commissioner collected $1,029 in expense money without filing a shred of paperwork, according to the report.

In an interview Blanchard declined to say how many on the 17-member board were involved or to name them, citing an ongoing investigation by his office. It’s also unclear whether these were past or present commissioners since the time period for the probe covers the years 2009 to 2012. Several commissioners either didn’t run or lost their seats in the 2010 election.

Blanchard also declined to say whether those involved have been notified, but in his report he recommends the commissioners in question either submit the paper work or return their share of the collective $98,039 that is unaccounted for.

Beyond their $85,000-a-year salary, commissioners have access to so-called contingency funds that cover work-related expenses. The expenses come out of the commissioners’ $360,000 office budgets — money that largely pays for their salaries and staff pay. Some commissioners have asked to set aside as much as $16,000 annually for contingencies this year, while others have declined to use any of the taxpayer funds for expenses.

The expense accounts have been controversial because there seems to be little oversight, officials have said.

In his report, Blanchard notes that until June 1 of this year, commissioners received and used expense money but weren’t required to file the report and supporting paper work — such as a meal receipt — first.

Now expense reports must be submitted, and the county’s Board of Ethics, which is technically under board President Toni Preckwinke’s office, vets the paperwork before a check is cut. The problems the inspector general documented were found between May 1, 2009 and May 31 of this year.

In a prepared statement Preckwinkle said she believed the new system of reimbursing commissioners, passed in June, “was an important first step to correcting problems encountered with the use of contingency funds.”

Blanchard’s examination of expense reports also revealed that several commissioners used expense money to purchase “assets” for county use or a mix of government and personal use — including one elected official who used the money to buy a car.

While that’s not an ordinance violation, Blanchard questions what happens to that asset once the commissioner leaves the county.

There’s no clear policy to deal with that, but Blanchard recommends the county decide whether to stop the practice or put in place a policy that allows an exiting commissioner to purchase the county’s equity interest in the asset on his or her way out the door.

Liz Gorman, a suburban Republican, said she bought a $42,000 Ford Explorer back in April and is covering about half of her car note with money from her expense account. She and her staff calculate monthly usage against the total monthly tab for her car note to come up with a reimbursement number.

“That’s what I’m billing the county for,” she says, noting that she’s open to looking at ways to better track county assets.

Blanchard also recommends better procedures for expense-account reports and is calling on the board to set limits on when commissioners can move money from one part of their budgets to their expense accounts. In one case, a commissioner moved $16,000 from one part of the office budget to the expense account. Already, the commissioner had just under $11,000 in the expense budget.

Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat who represents part of the Far North Side and suburbs, said he doesn’t take advantage of the expense money.

“We need to take action to make sure there are no loopholes and ensure that all expenses and assets are properly documented,” he said after the report was issued.

Joan Murphy, a southwest suburban Democrat, says the report doesn’t signal a need to do away with the contingency funds.

“I drive all over the county for work, I haven’t had a pay raise in 10 years,” Murphy said by phone, noting that she now saves her gas receipts when she fills up her car so she can be reimbursed. “Why shouldn’t we have these expense accounts? Every other elected office has them.”

The push to fix expense account rules has reached fever pitch at different times over the years — and was raised again in February. That’s when Commissioner William Beavers, a South Side Democrat, was hit with federal tax-evasion charges for allegedly failing to pay federal income taxes on more than $226,000 he took from his campaign funds and his county expense account to go gambling and to boost his city pension.

Beavers, a one-time Chicago cop and alderman, has denied wrongdoing.

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