We’ve moved!

We’re now posting on the Better Government Association main website.

To view the latest Investigators’ Notebook posts CLICK HERE or go to http://www.bettergov.org/blogs/investigators_notebook/.


Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary

Dangerous Political Terrain in Maywood?

Check out the following “musing” by Maywood Village Clerk Gary Woll, a veteran political figure in the near western suburb.

We knew Maywood was hairy in various ways, but politics is literally a blood sport in town, it seems.

Below is an edited excerpt from Woll’s most recent village newsletter, which is called “Gary’s Musings” and is sent out to hundreds of residents and others via email.

Stranger than fiction:

My endorsements come later but let me start my “memoirs.” I will begin with the negative. The following are some of my worst personal memories of being a local elected official and/or candidate. Violence seemed, at times, to follow me. When I was running for re-election one year. The daughter of my opponent was arrested, with two friends, having been caught spraying three of our large yard signs with some horrible filthy words. Shortly after being bailed out, someone threw a brick through the back window of the car in our driveway with a “re-elect Woll” sign on it, but not the other car. Why did I stop anti-crime patrol and making lists of street lights out? The last time I went out a couple of years ago, I slowed down, stupidly, to urge some middle school kids to stop their fighting. A kid jumped in the car and hit me in the face with a baseball bat!! Fortunately it struck exactly between the jaw line and the cheek bone! Once, in a closed session of a board meeting, a trustee got so mad at me, that he started choking me up against the wall but Trustee Casteel came to my rescue (my knight in shining armor). Another time I was conducting a hearing of the Law Enforcement Committee regarding our local gun laws and a neighbor came in with his tape recorder (that’s fine) but he stood up and shouted out physical threats against me if we banned gun shops in Maywood. The police had to escort him out when he started to accost me on my way out. Many years ago I saw someone breaking into [a home] when I was driving around (middle of the day!) and when I got out to investigate, remember this is before cell phones, he ran away with me huffing and puffing after him. In a back yard on the 600 block he turned and pulled out a long knife. I kid you not that I backed up and let him run out to 4th. As a note, I got in my car and went over to 5th where I saw him enter [an apartment building] which is no longer there. I got the police and they arrested him.

For the most part, I have not been the “victim” of hate campaign literature. But, during the same election where my signs and car were vandalized, on the Friday before the Tuesday election, an unsigned campaign piece arrived in the mail delineating a case, where I had been falsely accused, then found innocent of hitting a woman. Of course the literature did not mention the “not guilty” verdict. Another time similar literature was distributed to the audience at one of our board meetings. Am I a third rail?

Once when the elected officials first started insisting that our employees do random drug tests a rumor circulated that I was a “coke” user!! Interesting since what really happened was that my doctor had prescribed, for a bad cold, the use of a cough syrup which contained a tiny amount of codeine. Let me close this with funny one. A 5th avenue neighbor was threatening to call a TV station if we, the village, did not get a cat down out of a very high tree at 5th and Walton. The high ranger was sent over there but the public work’s employee was afraid of cats so I went up in the bucket with him, got scratched but got the cat down to safety. All of the above are true stories but stay tuned to the many, many more positive experiences I have had.

We look forward to the next entry – if Woll makes it that far in this rough-and-tumble business.

This blog post was compiled by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, who can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9030.

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary, Documents

The Shame of Profiling, and Politics

Couple things caught our eye today that we wanted to pass along.

EvergreenParkPoliceFirst was an intriguing story by FOX 32’s Dane Placko about alleged racial profiling in Evergreen Park, where a black man was pulled over and allegedly told he could get off the hook if he was able to track down a handgun for the cops. (Eerily similar to another instance that involved a State Police trooper and was documented some months back by FOX.)

Here’s the most recent story:


Here’s the earlier State Police story:


Meanwhile, on an unrelated note, we also recommend reading the first few “letters to the editor” in the Chicago Sun-Times today. They are spot on about Ed Burke, Mike Madigan and the rest of the political power elite running this city and state (and running them into the ground.)

To reach the Better Government Association, email rherguth@bettergov.org or call (312) 821-9030.

Leave a comment

Filed under Suburbs

Arrest of Ex-Maywood Cop a Symptom of Larger Problems in Town

MaywoodIn another sign that Maywood’s police department is in need of a dramatic overhaul, a now-former officer has been arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman he met on duty.

The disclosure follows a series of Better Government Association reports on the western suburb’s troubled municipal government – including the police force, which has a long, sordid history of misconduct, with officers accused over the years of beating and shaking down members of the public, and maintaining ties to gang members, among other problems, including bungling the investigation of murdered Maywood cop Tom Wood.

The man accused in the sexual assault, Deon Sams, resigned from the force in April as police in another suburb opened a criminal investigation into the incident in question. He was arrested and charged in recent days. (For details, click here or here.)

Beyond the alleged crime itself, the case cries out for answers about how Maywood officers are supervised.

In November, the BGA conveyed a number of reform recommendations to the village leadership, with a large focus on the police department.

Village officials have expressed a willingness to talk about them, which we appreciate. But we hope there is real follow-through, not just pre-election window dressing. (The incumbent mayor, Henderson Yarbrough, husband of Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough, is up for re-election next year.)

For the record, here’s one of our recommendations that may be relatable to the Sams case:

Maywood officials should hire an independent law enforcement/management consultant to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the police force, analyzing, among other things, crime reporting, staffing levels, promotions, resource allocation and training, with a special emphasis on the level and quality of supervision . . .

There are some good folks on the police department, but there also have been some very bad apples in recent years.

The residents of Maywood – a mostly black working-class community of about 24,000 – deserve better.

So do the good cops on the street.

For what it’s worth, Sams at one time had been a field training officer, helping train new or otherwise less-experienced cops.

Maywood is a tangled world. We can only hope that someday that’ll change.

This analysis was written by Robert Herguth of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9030.

Leave a comment

Filed under Around the Web, Word on the Street

Worth Reading: Bloomberg News Investigates State Payouts

Runaway costs aren’t just an Illinois problem. A special report from Bloomberg, an international news and financial information organization, reveals how rising personnel and pension payouts are swamping other major states.

Leave a comment

Filed under News

CBS 2 Reports On Ex-Dixon Comptroller’s Mini-Mansion

U.S. authorities say Rita Crundwell allegedly funneled money from city coffers into building and furnishing a mini-mansion near Sarasota, Fla. before being arrested and indicted for allegedly stealing $53 million from the downstate municipality.


Leave a comment

Filed under Around the Web

School Districts, Residents Bear Some Responsibility for Lyons Township Troubles

So who’s to blame for the problems at the Lyons Township School Treasurer’s Office?

We have a few thoughts, but first, here’s a primer for those unfamiliar with the situation:

The treasurer’s office is a small but important government agency that manages more than $200 million in taxpayer money on behalf of more than a dozen school districts in the west suburbs. Recently it came to light that the treasurer for the past two decades, a politically connected appointee named Robert G. Healy, who reports to an elected three-person board, improperly cashed out unused sick, vacation and personal days to the tune of more than $500,000. Not only is Healy accused of doing this without informing the board, it wasn’t clear how many off-days he was entitled to because he’d ordered his staff to stop keeping track of his comings and goings.

In addition, the BGA found Healy’s investment strategy severely lacking. He hired cronies to invest and monitor taxpayer money, and they in turn donated money to a campaign fund he runs.

The BGA also raised questions about whether investment advisors were charging higher-than-normal fees, and putting taxpayer money in investments that violated the agency’s own policies – as well as state law. (One investment in an international bond fund – which apparently was not allowed – lost about $200,000.)

Healy ended up resigning, as did one of the three elected trustees, and now the board pledges to crack down and get a handle on the finances, among other things verifying that no money is missing. The affiliated school districts, including Lyons Township High School District 204, are getting nervous. This is, after all, their money, and there’s a lot of it in the hands of the treasurer’s office.

So we ask again, who’s to blame for things getting this far afield?

Healy is an obvious target. He’s a political animal, with little formal training in the financial sector, and it seems mistakes were made on his watch, though he insists he acted appropriately.

But who was watching him? Not the board elected to manage the agency and follow the money. Members had little or no financial experience either, and they gave Healy virtual free rein.

Outside consultants – some still on the payroll – apparently didn’t notice any serious problems.

In some ways the participating school districts (and by extension the residents of those districts) are just as culpable as everyone else, if not more. It’s their money, and they haven’t been watching over it – except in District 101, an elementary system in Western Springs, where board member Marty Brown spotted irregularities and raised alarm bells with the BGA and others.

Getting back to District 204, the big dog in the western suburbs.

After the BGA and CBS2 published a story about the treasurer’s office troubles, Huffington Post republished it with a photo of Lyons Township High School. We then fielded a snippy voicemail from a district official who was apparently irked about the connection of possible scandal to the school.

Too bad, there already is a connection: District 204, like the treasurer’s office board and most of the other school systems, was asleep at the switch and didn’t do enough to keep tabs on taxpayer money.

Perhaps school districts should worry more about preventing future troubles and – God forbid, once in a while show up at the treasurer’s office board meetings – rather than worry about their perceived image.

Let’s hope there’s not any money missing, that bad accounting and questionable investment decisions are fixed and not repeated. And let’s hope the public officials and residents in Lyons Township learn something from this situation – that paying attention can pay dividends, in every sense of the word.

This blog post was written and reported by the BGA’s Robert Herguth. He can be reached at rherguth@bettergov.org, or (312) 821-9030.

Leave a comment

Filed under Townships

Bloomberg News: Feds Falling Down on FOIA

Bloomberg News, an international finance and political information service, found that major U.S. federal government agencies are too slow or are outright failing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests.

Here’s the story.


Leave a comment

Filed under Around the Web

Next in Line: Illinois Targets Tollway Abuse

The Illinois Tollway Authority is following the lead of some other big states.

In finding a new way to crack down on drivers who repeatedly fail to pay their tolls, the Tollway Authority recently announced plans to start filing lawsuits against the worst tollway offenders.

Illinois hopes to recoup a large chunk of nearly $300 million in overdue fines and unpaid tolls owed by scofflaws.

Other states are on the same road.

Texas, for instance, which began suing the biggest deadbeats in July. Since then, the Lone Star State has had over 1,200 people enter repayment plans.

In May, Washington state created a tollway court that handles 250 cases a week and, so far, 1,300 people have paid off their back tolls.

The city of Denver is now threatening to withhold vehicle re-registration unless scofflaws make good on their outstanding tolls.

Illinois says more than one million violation notices are outstanding, and over 500,000 drivers have unpaid violations.

That sounds huge but it actually represents less than 2 percent of the tollway’s daily drivers.

This post originally aired as a Weekend Watchdog report on WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM WBBM.

Leave a comment

Filed under Word on the Street

Lansing’s Last-Day Largess for Retirees

Taxpayers are left holding the bag as Lansing leaders give pay hikes to cops and firefighters as they retire – prompting pensions to soar. Read more…

Leave a comment

Filed under Pensions

Stepping down, then stepping up in Stickney

Cody Mares quit his position as trustee with the Village of Stickney earlier this week just before a board meeting. He then was appointed head of public works at the meeting. This isn’t sitting well with several other trustees who suspect politics and friendship are trumping experience.

“Nobody in their right mind would place him there,” Trustee Fred Schimel told the Better Government Association, referring to Mares. The appointment – which came with little advance notice from Village President Dan O’Reilly, a political ally of Mares – “blew my a– away.”

Schimel walked out of the May 15 public meeting in frustration because of the situation.

O’Reilly, whom the BGA and FOX Chicago News previously reported was using village funds to buy flowers from the flower shop he owns, appointed Mares, then cast the tie-breaking vote to make it official.

“He’s a journeyman carpenter, he’s well qualified to lead maintenance workers,” O’Reilly said in defense of his pick. “He’s one of the best trustees I had.”

O’Reilly said the salary for Mares’ new position hasn’t been set but the previous guy made about $70,000. Trustees are paid roughly $7,000 a year.

Mares wouldn’t say why he was leaving the village board, but indicated he was “tired of politics.”

Stickney might be best known as home to a vast waste-water treatment plant.

Turns out the facility, located near Stickney’s Village Hall, is not the only thing making folks hold their nose in town.

This blog entry was written and reported by BGA Senior Investigator Patrick Rehkamp. He can be reached at prehkamp@bettergov.org or (312) 386-9201.

Leave a comment

Filed under Suburbs, Transparency

Before the Fall, Cellini Firm Feasted on Fees

It would appear that William Cellini’s reign as a state powerbroker is over, especially since he’s probably headed for jail.

That’s in sharp contrast to a few years before his conviction last November in federal court of extortion conspiracy and soliciting a bribe. At that time, the real estate investment firm he ran was flush with tens of millions of dollars in fees provided by the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) of Illinois.

Cellini’s Commonwealth Realty Advisors received $30 million between 2001-2010, the Better Government Association found.

It was Cellini’s influence on the state’s largest public pension fund that helped lead to his downfall. Cellini was convicted of scheming to pressure a co-owner of investment firm Capri Capital in 2004 to make campaign contributions to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in return for Capri’s managing some TRS investments worth $220 million.

Federal authorities have alleged in court documents that Blagojevich insiders Tony Rezko and Christopher Kelly were also part of the scheme to force Capri to make payments to the ex-governor’s campaign fund.

The plot backfired when Capri co-owner Tom Rosenberg, a Hollywood producer whose films include “Million Dollar Baby,” refused to give money to Blagojevich, according to court documents.

Rosenberg threatened to go to the authorities.

To try to prevent that from happening, Cellini, Rezko, Kelly and TRS board member Stuart Levine decided Capri should get the $220 million investment stake anyway. But they vowed to use their influence to block Capri from receiving future state business, federal authorities alleged in court documents.

In October 2008, a federal grand jury indicted Cellini on charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion and soliciting a bribe.

Cellini was subsequently convicted in federal court, where Rosenberg was a key government witness.

Cellini’s family still has property and business interests in Springfield and downstate, so a comeback for the resilient political powerhouse is always a possibility.

But that’s a long shot: Cellini faces up to 30 years in prison and his firm, Commonwealth Realty, has closed. His sentencing is scheduled for June 15.

This blog entry was reported and written by BGA Investigator Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at (312) 821-9035, or at aschroedter@bettergov.org.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiscal Issues, Investigations

IMRF Vs. TRS: Getting More For Less

Over the past decade, another major public employee pension fund reaped a higher investment return, paid less in financial fees and used fewer advisers than the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) of Illinois.

The Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF), which had $24 billion in assets at the end of 2010, had an average annual return of 5.4 percent (not including fees) for the 10-year period ending in 2010.

The fund couldn’t provide a net return for the 10-year period.

During that period, IMRF paid $594 million in fees to money managers, significantly less than TRS’ $1.3 billion payout. Eighty vendors were paid more than $1 million each by IMRF compared to more than 200 TRS vendors.

Another difference: IMRF, which manages pensions for local governments and school districts, is not state-funded as is TRS and four other major state-backed pensions.

IMRF was about 80 percent funded at the end of last year, according to a preliminary estimate.

In comparison, TRS is less than half funded.

Brett Chase is a Chicago-based freelance reporter and BGA investigator.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiscal Issues, Investigations

ROUNDUP: Kidding Around at CPS; D.C. Lobbyist Gets Another Deal at Sanitary District; Lush Spending in Lincolnwood

>> Southwest Side school under scrutiny on residency

In the old days, we heard somewhat regularly about city parents obtaining phony addresses in the suburbs so their kids could attend public school there for free and not be subjected to CPS.

Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School

In a twist on that practice, we recently heard the Chicago Public Schools’ inspector general is investigating allegations that at least one family from the south suburbs is boundary jumping into the city so their kids can attend Keller Elementary Gifted Magnet School on the Far Southwest Side.

We wondered whether this might be a symptom of an improving – at least in some quarters – city school system.

Either way, it turns out residency schemes occur with relative frequency, according to the IG’s 2011 annual report, which reads: Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Roundups

As Relationship Simmers Between Chicago Fire Commissioner and IG, Management Questions Persist

(remixed image, original courtesy mhowry/cc)

In the opening scenes of the 1991 Ron Howard film “Backdraft,” two young brothers are horsing around in the Chicago firehouse where their father works when an emergency call comes in. As firefighters ready their engine to answer the call, the younger brother beams when his dad asks if he wants to ride along.

They reach the scene with sirens blazing, and the son watches his father pull a child from the top floor of the burning building. But then a tragic turn: A gas leak leads to an explosion, and the boy’s father dies in the blaze. From there, the film flashes forward decades when both brothers are Chicago firefighters.

The movie is loosely based on the lives of Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff and his older brother Raymond Hoff, third-generation Chicago firefighters whose father was killed fighting a fire in a South Side apartment building in 1962, according to media reports.

The film came to mind recently because Commissioner Hoff—presumably depicted as the younger brother in “Backdraft” who rode along with his firefighter-father – is now at the center of a controversy involving fire department “ride alongs.” Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary

Radio Silence in Melrose Park, Despite Some Promising Reforms

Hey, where'd you get that uniform?

Melrose Park remains a curious place.

Historically it was a town with strong organized crime influences. While the current leaders of Melrose Park may not like that image, they don’t do a lot to correct it either, considering Mayor Ron Serpico continues to take campaign contributions from a waste-hauling company that the FBI has long contended is run by two high-ranking mob figures.

But we digress.

The mob aside, run-of-the-mill public corruption hasn’t disappeared from the western suburb, as evidenced by a scandal a few years back that sent the now-former police chief, Vito Scavo, to federal prison.

His crimes?

The Chicago Sun-Times puts it quite succinctly: Continue reading


Filed under Suburbs

Old-School Politics In New-Age Community?

State Sen. Don Harmon

Oak Park has a reputation as a progressive place, where education and the arts matter, where voters care about social issues and aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo.

They’d be “lakefront liberals” if the Eisenhower was water instead of exhaust-stained pavement.

Don Harmon, the state senator who represents the near western suburb and lives in town, says he takes pride in embodying Oak Park’s values and independent spirit.

But after researching how much state-government business his law firm has been getting, among other subjects, we have to wonder: is Harmon really a Machine Democrat in (organic, grass-fed) sheep’s clothing?

The Better Government Association recently found that the small Chicago law firm that employs Harmon has been paid millions of dollars over the years to provide legal services for state agencies – which Harmon, as a member of the General Assembly, helps oversee. He’s also voted on a piece of gaming legislation that his firm helped craft.

That’s a clear conflict of interest.

But even beyond all that, Harmon’s street cred as a “reformer” or progressive has to be questioned.

Why does his law firm advise public-sector clients not to speak to the media?

Why did he vote to water down the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, which ensures journalists and regular citizens can access most government documents?

Why did he accept $300 in campaign donations just a couple months back from D & P Construction, a waste-hauling company that’s repeatedly (and publicly) been linked to the Chicago mob?

Why did he introduce a piece of legislation that would allow office holders to “double dip” – hold two elected positions at once?

Peter Silvestri, a Cook County commissioner and Elmwood Park’s village president, told the BGA that Harmon fronted that bill at his request. After the BGA learned of the legislation, Harmon relayed that he changed his mind and was withdrawing his support.

But about a month later he quietly resurrected the bill in the form of an amendment to an unrelated piece of legislation. When we tried to ask him about the flip-flop, Harmon wouldn’t return our calls. He later told the BGA he regretted getting involved in the matter. The legislation was never approved.

Lastly, although we’re not into branding people with “guilt by association,” it’s worth noting Harmon started out his career as an aide to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat who is the ultimate Machine guy – one of the most powerful political figures in the state and one of the largest obstacles to reforming our troubled government system.

This isn’t to say Harmon hasn’t done good things. In fact, he’s worked with the BGA on legislation, including a successful effort to kill the misused and abused “legislative scholarship” program.

But judged through a larger prism, Harmon isn’t challenging the status quo. He is the status quo.

This blog post was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, Patrick Rehkamp and Robert Herguth. They can be reached at aschroedter@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9035.

Leave a comment

Filed under Investigations, Suburbs