Category Archives: Roundups

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

ROUNDUP: Evans Steps Up, Levar Steps Down, Huggins Steps Quietly


Joseph Berrios picks no favorites for his soon-to-be vacant commissioner post on the Cook County Board of Review

As the dust settles from the Nov. 2 election, it seems that one of the biggest winners locally was Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans—and not only because he won retention to the bench.

With Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Joe Berrios victorious in the Cook County assessor’s race and poised to leave the Board of Review—a little-known but hugely influential public body that reviews property tax assessment appeals—Evans gets to appoint Berrios’s successor.

“The statute certainly does provide that opportunity. I plan to carry that out,” Evans told the Better Government Association. “There was no reason to interview anyone until we knew.”

Among the requirements for interested folks: they must live in the district for at least the past two years, and be of the same political party as the exiting commissioner, who in this case is Democratic.

Some of the likely front-runners include:

  • Thomas Jaconetty – He was appointed to a seat on the Board of Review in 1988 when Harry H. Semrow passed away, but most recently has been serving as first-assistant commissioner to Berrios. His experience with the property tax system and election law is vast, but he would not tip his hand whether he’s interested in the post.
  • Daniel Pikarski – He’s an attorney who appeals property tax assessments in front of the Board of Review. His law firm has earned millions of dollars in assessment breaks for its clients. Pikarski used to work for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. He declined to comment.
  • Michael Stone – He’s chief deputy assessor under the outgoing assessor, Jim Houlihan. Like Jaconetty, Stone has experience with the property tax system. He said he’s interested in filling the slot.

Berrios, who also is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, indicated some days back that he had not spoken with Evans about the position but would like to at some point. The soon-to-be-assessor also said he doesn’t have any favorites in mind and that nobody has come forward about replacing him.

“I’m not going to demand to put my person in there,” said Berrios.

All we ask is that Evans picks someone who will avoid the patronage, nepotism and fundraising conflicts that marked Berrios’s tenure on the Board of Review.


Ald. Patrick Levar will not seek a seventh term in the 45th

We’re certainly sorry for Ald. Patrick Levar’s (45th) health woes, and wish him the best in his fight against prostate cancer, which contributed to his recent decision not to run for re-election.

That said, let’s hope that whoever replaces him in the Chicago City Council takes a more enlightened view of government.

Levar has represented the 45th Ward on the Northwest Side for years, and serves as the Democratic committeeman. He’s a product of the old Tom Lyons operation. (Lyons is the late committeeman and county Democratic Party chief.)

Levar is old school, to put it mildly.

Look no further than his fundraising operation. The first word that comes to mind is “unabashed.”

One of his previous money men was Chris Kelly, the shady Blagojevich adviser who ended up killing himself.

He continues to take campaign cash from a union whose secretary-treasurer, public records show, has reputed organized crime ties.

And he solicits and accepts donations from would-be contractors seeking approval from the City Council committee that he chairs.

Let’s hope that Levar’s successor takes a more 21st Century worldview for the sake of Chicago, and the Northwest Side.

Standing on a platform as a Metra express train roars by can be quite the experience.

The thundering steel shakes the ground and whips up hurricane-like gusts.

To put it in human terms, it’s nothing like Larry Huggins – the longest-serving member of Metra’s board who’s known as a rather quiet and unassuming fellow, at least in his official capacities.

But make no mistake, he’s a powerful force as well – in business and fundraising circles. He runs one of the largest minority-owned construction companies around – Riteway – which over the years has teamed up with heavyweight companies such as Walsh and McHugh.

In the process, Huggins has made a lot of money – and has given away tons, quietly becoming one of the more deep-pocketed political patrons around.

By our count, in a little more than a decade, he, Riteway and its affiliates have donated more than $350,000 to local political candidates – a whopping amount that’s been spread around to dozens of candidates and campaigns, everyone from Cook County Commissioner William Beavers and Former CPS CEO Paul Vallas, to lame duck Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, Mayor Daley and President Obama.

All the while, Huggins has stayed out of the spotlight, not at all a household name.

And that’s how he’ll stay, at least for now. He declined to talk about himself or his political activities to the Better Government Association, indicating through a Metra spokeswoman that he’s a pretty private guy.

So why are we writing this? Certainly not to say Huggins did anything wrong. He’s just one of the powerbrokers in town who is quietly shaping the political and government landscape.

This blog entry was reported and written by Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at

Leave a comment

Filed under Roundups

Dispatch from DuPage: What about Bob?

DuPage County Board Chairman Robert J. Schillerstrom (courtesy

DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom wasn’t terribly happy fielding our questions the other day following a County Board meeting.

To paraphrase his initial reaction: I’m almost out the door, can’t you leave me be?

Yes, he is almost out the door. Schillerstrom did not run for re-election to the powerful DuPage post, and although he ran in the GOP gubernatorial primary earlier this year, he pulled out at the last moment and threw his support to rival Jim Ryan.

As of early December, Schillerstrom is riding off into the sunset.

Or is he?

In August he hosted a golf fundraiser at Klein Creek Golf Club in Winfield, and collected quite a bit of money — perhaps $40,000, Schillerstrom said.

Is there another run for office planned?

Not now, he insisted, saying the money is to help pay off campaign debt.

To be sure, we’ll check the campaign disclosures down the road and let you know.

Side note: Schillerstrom’s long-time political patron/fundraiser Michael Vondra — the so-called “asphalt king” of Illinois — was at the August golf outing, but Schillerstrom said Vondra did not “pave” the way for the event. “I made the phone calls” to would-be donors, Schillerstrom said. He added that he and Vondra still speak regularly.

Vondra is an intriguing figure.

A huge campaign donor and contractor, his name has surfaced at various times in unfortunate venues, such as the recent Blagojevich trial.

Vondra allegedly sought help from the then-governor on a business venture, and then was targeted by Blago for $100,000 in campaign help. Vondra was not charged with any wrongdoing.

Other questions were raised several years earlier about Vondra’s involvement in a construction company that was suspected by some of being a minority front, as it sought business from the Daley administration.

Turns out the BGA isn’t the only investigative group that has asked Schillerstrom questions over the last few years.

He has been interviewed twice by FBI agents, he confirmed to the BGA.

He emphasized that he was interviewed as a witness, not a target, and that neither case directly involved DuPage. He also said the FBI interviews took place five or more years back.

One of the cases involved crooked consultant John Glennon, but Schillerstrom was cagey on the second instance. He didn’t want to give up the name, he said, because the person in question never was charged with a crime, and he doesn’t want to throw “dirt.”

Mr. Schillerstrom not only answered questions from the BGA, but asked them, as he was very curious about what had prompted the BGA’s attention.

He wanted to know who was dropping dimes on him.

Of course we protect those who give us information anonymously, so we didn’t say, but Schillerstrom gave it a try anyway and asked if it was Dan Cronin, the guy trying to succeed Schillerstrom as County Board chairman — an intriguing question that hints at suspicion and discord among some of the county’s Republican powerbrokers.

What did Ronald Reagan say about not speaking ill about other GOPers? It was his “11th Commandment.”Oh well. That’s old news.

This blog entry was reported and written by Robert Herguth. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at

Leave a comment

Filed under Roundups

ROUNDUP: Politics (and tickets) as usual

Maybe City Colleges of Chicago should start offering drivers education courses…for its own employees.

Since 2008 the college system’s fleet of around 80 vehicles have wracked up about two dozen tickets.

Mean streets... (Emily Jurlina/BGA)

The most common violation: running red lights — there were 16 citations for that.

The rest were an assortment of parking-type offenses. (One citation was for failing to have or properly display a city sticker, although it ultimately was dismissed. Two other tickets likewise were tossed, records show.)

At least 10 of the violations traced back to the system’s inspector general’s office.

So who coughed up cash for the tickets? We the taxpayers?

Perhaps in one instance, a City Colleges spokeswoman acknowledged.

But in most of the cases, the responsible employees had to pony up, she said.

In Illinois, the line between government and politics is routinely blurred.

Sometimes the blurring is obvious, like when city hiring is rigged to reward campaign workers — just ask Robert Sorich.

Sometimes it just seems stupid.

Until recently at the 19th Ward’s “online service office,”, you could, on the same landing page: “request a service,” and learn about Matt O’Shea’s Sept. 30 golf outing/political fund-raiser in Lemont, Ill.

Should we infer there’s a connection between donations and city services on the Far Southwest Side?

“Not at all,” says O’Shea, the 19th Ward Democratic committeeman running to replace the retiring Ginger Rugai in the City Council. “Anybody calls for a city service, we drop everything here and try to get it done as fast as possible.”

There have been a few complaints about the website, although O’Shea suggests a political rival might be the one stirring up the trouble. (Either way, the Chicago Board of Ethics is looking into this.)

O’Shea points out that no tax dollars are used to support the website — which, by the way, includes a downloadable sign that constituents can post in the entryways of their homes. It’s message: “No Soliciting!”

Racial dynamics in politics certainly aren’t exclusive to the city of Chicago.

Consider a lawsuit heading toward trial in federal court that claims a now-former security official with Proviso Township high school district in the west suburbs was demoted because he’s white – and because he stopped providing political help to the school board president, who’s black.

This is the fifth lawsuit in the past eight years or so alleging reverse discrimination, political shenanigans or both at Proviso, records show.

School board president Chris Welch called the suits “baseless,” and said the district is taking “a stand” on this latest one (filed in 2008, with a trial date likely to be scheduled in a few weeks.)

Among other things, the former security official, Michael Klean, claims that he was pressured to sell political fundraising tickets to keep his job.

This all presumably will be sorted out at trial, unless it’s settled beforehand.

Either way, Proviso East and West students looking for a real-life civics lesson might want to follow this case.

This blog entry was reported and written by Robert Herguth, Pat Rehkamp and Joel Ebert. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at

Leave a comment

Filed under Roundups

ROUNDUP: Give and you shall receive + sleuthing from the inside

Maybe he should be dodging these types of campaign donations.

Metra board member James V. Dodge (Photo/Village of Orland Park, Ill.)

Metra board member Jim Dodge — in his unsuccessful run for Illinois comptroller earlier this year — accepted $2,750 in campaign money from a Rosemont company called Christopher B. Burke Engineering, state records indicate. Wait, Christopher B. Burke Engineering? That sounds familiar . . .

It should sound familiar to Dodge: Burke Engineering does a lot of business with Metra, has for years. And it serves as “village engineer” in Orland Park, where Dodge sits on the village board.

This is the same Jim Dodge who accepted campaign money and other assistance from an employee of the Acquity Group — after Dodge voted on giving the Chicago company a lucrative contract to revamp Metra’s website.

Is it us, or is the Metra board becoming tiresome?

It’s worth recalling that, like a yardman working the midnight shift, board members were asleep at the switch as former Executive Director Phil Pagano pillaged the commuter rail agency before killing himself this past May.

By the way, a different “Burke” is listed in the police reports related to Pagano’s death: Ed Burke.

One of those reports logs a “sealed plastic evidence envelope containing one note pad sheet of paper with the names and numbers of Carole Dorrs . . . and Ed Burke . . . recovered from the kitchen countertop of the residence . . .”

14th Ward Alderman Edward M. Burke (Photo/Office of the Chicago City Clerk)

“Dorrs” apparently is a reference to Metra board chairwoman Carole Doris. We wondered if “Ed Burke” was the Ed Burke, the powerful Chicago alderman.

It’s unclear because the McHenry County sheriff’s office redacted potentially identifying information. “We didn’t attempt to identify who that was,” a police official told the BGA.

But as we poked around, we confirmed through a well-placed source that Pagano and the alderman indeed were pals, which makes sense if you read the memorial resolution put forward by Burke at the May 12 City Council meeting (Page 50 of 409), just days after Pagano’s death. It reads in part:

“Be It Resolved, That we, the Mayor and the members of the Chicago City Council . . . do hereby commemorate Philip A. Pagano for his grace-filled life . . .”

We hope you folks enjoy this blog and the material produced by the investigative unit of the BGA. The BGA is here to fight for the public by exposing corruption, waste and ineptitude — among other problems — in government across Illinois.

But clearly we can’t do it alone. Your help is critical. And that’s why we created the Citizen Watchdog Program, which recruits and trains regular folks to attend government meetings and keep tabs on public officials.

It’s worth mentioning someone “unusual” who showed up at one of our first watchdog training sessions: David Stachura, who serves on the board of education in Schiller Park District 81.

Yes, he’s a public official, but make no mistake: this guy is a watchdog, and a thorn in the side of his own agency.

When Stachura’s district was getting rid of old furniture in a school and buying new things, he raised flags, partly by filing dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests with his own organization.

He also zeroed in on Christmas party expenditures by the district, alleging taxpayers had coughed up around $30,000 since 2004.

District Supt. Roberta Taylor challenged that assertion and said Stachura fashions himself a “taxpayer watchdog,” but one “whose perspective is . . . difficult to change.”

Perhaps a polite way of saying the guy’s a pain in the butt.

Either way, people like him are important, especially as community newspapers cut staff and close their doors, and governmental agencies are less scrutinized.

This is how Stachura puts it: “The school district is just tax and spend. There is no respect for the taxpayers’ money whatsoever.” To hear more from Stachura, and learn more about the Citizen Watchdog Program, watch this short video:

This blog entry was reported and written by Robert Herguth, Pat Rehkamp and Joel Ebert. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at

Leave a comment

Filed under Roundups

ROUNDUP: Lollygagging, Finagling and Justifying

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is the governmental agency responsible for processing human waste.

The audit did not confirm/deny dashboard decorations in MWRD vehicles (Jimmy_Joe/Flickr)

But the organization also must worry about another kind of waste: lollygagging employees.

With that in mind, the district installed GPS devices on a number of its vehicles, meaning bosses could, in theory, track workers electronically to make sure they’re in the right spots and not goofing off.

An internal audit released to the district board this May portrayed a GPS program in disarray, which begs the question: Is the MWRD wasting time and taxpayers’ money to measure wasted time and taxpayers’ money?

“Many of the GPS units have not been installed on the vehicles,” according to the audit. “For those vehicles that do have the devices, there is no evidence that the tracking reports are reviewed.”

In another internal document, a district staffer countered the audit by claiming GPS reports are reviewed, but acknowledged shortcomings.

One part of the agency, for instance, has 70 “active” vehicles, according to the document. Of those, “47 vehicles have had GPS units installed and only 28 GPS units are currently working, some intermittently.”

By the way, the GPS units on the district’s two patrol boats also “work intermittently.”

The gizmos each cost roughly $650.

The district’s executive director, Richard Lanyon, told the BGA that his people are working to resolve problems.

So Rod Blagojevich is being retried.

There’s been a fair amount of talk about the cost of another trial, and the toll it will take on the former governor and his family. But what about the toll on the witnesses, officials and other people who are waiting to move on with their lives and/or prison terms?

People such as John Harris, Blago’s former right-hand man who was charged in the corruption case, and then agreed to flip.

McCormick Place (Rob Jacob/Flickr)

Harris came to mind recently, not so much in connection with our state’s former Elvis-in-Chief, but in relation to McCormick Place, which is run by the public agency known as McPier.

When the Blago team was still in power, the word from inside sources was that Harris called a lot of the shots at McPier — maybe even more than then-CEO Juan Ochoa.

This raised legitimate questions about why certain contracts were awarded and why certain folks were hired or promoted. For example, in 2008 McPier awarded a janitorial contract to a company run by one of Blago’s fundraisers, even though the runner-up bid was $30 million cheaper.

We filed a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of emails between Harris and Ochoa.

Turns out there were two — at least that could be found and involved official, government-issued email accounts. The emails are brief — even terse — which was Harris’s way when he worked for the Daley administration as budget chief and airport czar.

“Fax me the briefing paper you showed to Lori,” Harris wrote to Ochoa on Oct. 31, 2007.

“Update?” Harris inquired in an email to Ochoa a few months before. It was entitled “Pipefitters.”

What does this all mean? Don’t know. Harris’s attorneys declined to comment. Ochoa (who left McPier earlier this year) could not be reached. One thing is clear: many questions remain.

If you want to chat about McPier — past, present or future — please reach out.

When a child denies sneaking candy, and you later find out he’d scarfed six Snickers bars, trust might be hard to come by in future interactions.


A comparable scenario went down in the 1990s, when the Daley administration denied there were secret plans to expand O’Hare’s runways.

Such an expansion would further slam the area with noise and air pollution — homes might be razed, too — so nearby suburbanites were vocally opposed to the expansion, hypothetical or otherwise.

It turned out that Mayor Daley’s people were indeed secretly planning to expand O’Hare, and the project is now far along in its construction, whether neighbors like it or not (incidentally, John Harris ran O’Hare before he jumped ship to state government.)

These days opposition to the O’Hare expansion is more splintered and less vocal in suburban communities — the feeling by many is, well, the fight is lost. But there still are plenty of folks with beefs about airplane noise, in part because of reconfigured flight patterns.

As Daley’s legacy is debated, this chapter should be recalled. He should be viewed in part through this prism, not necessarily on the merits of expansion, but on how it came to be.

The BGA recently wrote an article in the Sun-Times about religious leaders going to bat in court for crooked politicians, including former Chicago Ald. Ed Vrdolyak.

Among those to write a letter on his behalf to the judge was Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“Please let Ed Vrdolyak’s admission mean something in a world of denial,” wrote McCaughey.

We asked her about this, but didn’t have the space to include her e-mail response in the Sun-Times piece. So, we’re sharing part of it here. It’s worth noting that McCaughey said she has no plans to pen another letter for Vrdolyak, as his resentencing hearing approaches.

“A friend of his family asked me to write [the initial letter] and I wrote in the context of a school administrator who knew his son’s family. I wrote because he plead guilty, because admission of guilt serves the public good, just as his actions did not. As you saw from the short memo, my words were more about the impact on his family (especially his then college frosh granddaughter whom I did know and respect) than about him. The letter did not directly reference his sentencing, but asked for an acknowledgment of his accepting responsibility for his actions which hurt his family.”

“No, I will not write again, as I assume re-sentencing is based on something more and it has been over two years since I have had any personal contact with the persons involved.”

Please keep visiting the BGA’s website, and this blog, because we have a number of investigations about to pop with various media partners.

This blog entry was reported and written by Robert Herguth, Pat Rehkamp and Joel Ebert. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at

Leave a comment

Filed under Roundups

ROUNDUP: Peepers, Parkers and Loaders — Oh My!

If you take a peek inside the Illinois Department of Transportation’s (IDOT) offices in Schaumburg these days, you might see James Stumpner, 48.

Paid nearly $104,000 a year, he’s the bureau chief of maintenance for the IDOT district based in the northwest suburbs. He had been on leave — or suspension — since March, when he was arrested for peeping into a woman’s Crystal Lake apartment. But now he’s back on the job — as of early July — a month after pleading guilty to one count of misdemeanor disorderly conduct. An IDOT spokesman explained: “The incident took place outside of working hours, outside of state property.”

This is not Stumpner. (Photo courtesy vvvracer/Flickr)

What’s more, Stumpner served a suspension and “is a vital component to the Bureau of Maintenance in the Chicagoland region. Some of his responsibilities include the direct oversight of the maintenance, operations of snow removal, bridge work, beautification projects.”

Stumpner declined to comment, and his attorney insisted he was not a serial peeper, and was wrongly portrayed as such in early accounts.

Either way, he was sentenced to supervision, fined $500 plus court costs, and ordered to perform 30 hours of community service and complete counseling, according to Demetri Tsilimigras, deputy chief of the McHenry County state’s attorney’s office criminal division. Stumpner also was given a 30-day jail term, but he won’t have to serve it if he keeps his nose clean, Tsilimigras said.

In the meantime, he’s back to making sure our state roads are clean.

You’d think a public agency with offices smack dab across the street from the BGA’s headquarters would take greater care in following the rules.

A sleek black 2010 Chevy Tahoe hybrid used by the City Colleges of Chicago — which includes seven taxpayer-supported schools — was parked in a tow zone in front of the agency’s headquarters on the 200 block of West Jackson Boulevard on and off for weeks this summer, even after a BGA reporter called to inquire about it. Other vehicles owned by the public college system also park there on occasion.

At least it's a hybrid... (Staff/BGA)

While it’s certainly not the worst thing City Colleges has ever done — anyone remember the huge financial losses suffered in the mid-1990s when the system invested in risky derivatives? — it’s also not the message regular joes like: that M-plated government vehicles don’t have to follow the rules. Which leads us to a request:

If you spot government workers slacking, or breaking the rules, please let us know. If you catch it on camera, even better. Send tips to or

Of course it’s not always public employees being naughty — sometimes they’re the victims. Just to see what we’d find, the BGA Investigative Team requested information on thefts from several local governmental agencies.

A lot of pretty basic stuff, it turned out, including leaf blowers swiped from Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation. Among the more noticeable things stolen, though, was a $41,550 Caterpillar Skid Steer Loader from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC).

About 41k went down the tubes when this loader got swiped. (Photo supplied by MWRDGC)

It was purchased a few years back, and within two months of delivery was gone, poof. The sanitary district submitted an insurance claim, but it was denied, officials said.The agency ended up buying another loader, and the thief never was caught.

There’s a new book out from Ed Hammer, who investigated misconduct in the Illinois secretary of state’s office under George Ryan — or more to the point, tried to investigate misconduct, but often was thwarted.

The book is called “One Hundred Percent Guilty,” and among many other stories, it recalls Hammer visiting Ryan at the ex-governor’s Kankakee home shortly before Ryan headed off to prison for corruption. Hammer asked for an apology for the injustices done to him and his co-workers while Ryan was their boss. Ryan refused.

“I don’t believe the man has a conscience,” Hammer said of the encounter.

Hammer retired from law enforcement in 2002. He sat as a witness in Ryan’s trial, and began working on the book around the same time. He plans to do more writing in his retirement, and has several fiction projects in the works. He also does contracting work with the Illinois Law Enforcement Training & Standards Board, and does some substitute teaching.

Despite all the public corruption he’s witnessed, Hammer still professes some faith in our system of government and its ability to hold public servants accountable. Why?

Hammer laughs.

“My personal experience was, all I heard from the time that Dean Bauer and Scott Fawell and George Ryan took over, . . . that you’re not going to be able to do anything [about corruption in the secretary of state’s office because] George Ryan . . . is the most powerful Republican leader in the state,” he said. “But [the feds] took down the house of cards. The system did work with George Ryan.”

It simply “took a while.”

Please keep visiting the BGA’s soon-to-be redesigned website, and this blog, because we have a number of investigations about to pop with various media partners.
The staggering level of corruption and waste underscores the importance of an organization such as ours.

These entries were reported and written by Robert Herguth, Pat Rehkamp, Joel Ebert and Sam Barnett. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at

Leave a comment

Filed under Roundups