Sunday, June 06, 2010

No-bid contracts draw probe - State's attorney's office talks to 2 county employees, political adviser about a dozen Cook County deals

No-bid contracts draw probe - State's attorney's office talks to 2 county employees, political adviser about a dozen Cook County deals
BY LISA DONOVAN Cook County Reporter
Copyright by The Chicago Sun Times
June 6, 2010,CST-NWS-probe06.article

The Cook County state's attorney's office is investigating about a dozen no-bid contracts approved by top aides to Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, including one handed to a private company owned by his embattled deputy chief of staff, Carla Oglesby, law enforcement sources have confirmed.

Two county employees and a political adviser to Todd Stroger tell the Chicago Sun-Times they've been questioned in recent weeks about the contracts by prosecutors in the state's attorney's Public Corruption and Financial Crimes Unit.

All three declined to be identified for fear of retribution but said they were interviewed at length about a communications contract given to CGC Communications, a public relations firm owned by Oglesby.

"They wanted to know exactly who had told me about the contract and just any knowledge I had about the CGC contract," one Stroger administration employee said.

The county employee told prosecutors that questions began bubbling up in Stroger's fifth floor executive office at 118 N. Clark about fast-tracking a check to CGC Communications.

"Someone was complaining about it," the staffer told the Sun-Times, recalling what was also shared with prosecutors. "They mentioned that a check needed to be fast-tracked to CGC."

While the staffer said that the irritated co-worker had no idea who owned CGC -- it registered immediately with the staffer. Prosecutors pressed the staffer about failing to speak up to a boss about concerns over the contract.

"They [prosecutors] wanted to know why I didn't say anything right away," the employee told the Sun-Times. "I said I didn't know what the whole story was . . . it did raise red flags, but I certainly didn't want to jump to any conclusions."

A spokeswoman for the Cook County state's attorney had no comment on the investigation.

The contracts have sparked a firestorm of criticism. Cook County commissioners have pointed to an ordinance that prohibits awarding a contract to a firm owned by a county employee, with some going so far as to say the contracts are evidence that Stroger administration members are lining their pockets during his final months in office.

Oglesby was the campaign spokesman for Stroger until he lost the Feb. 2 primary.

On Feb. 16, she joined the county as Stroger's $120,000-a-year deputy chief of staff.

Little more than a week later, she approved a county contract for her public relations firm to get the word out about federal funding available to victims of the 2008 flooding around the county.

Oglesby told the Sun-Times last month she approved the contract for her firm and fast-tracked the $24,975 payment, but called that the mistake of a new county employee who didn't know any better.

Stroger suspended her for five days and the county's inspector general, the county Ethics Board and the state's attorney's office are investigating that contract along with nearly a dozen other contracts that fall below the $25,000 threshold and aren't subject to approval by Cook County Commissioners.

Oglesby said last week she hadn't been questioned by the prosecutor's office about the CGC contract -- or any of the others that have been tied to her and Eugene Mullins, Stroger's communications chief and childhood pal.

That includes eight "Census outreach'' contracts that Mullins recommended and Oglesby approved in recent months -- each under the $25,000 mark.

Prosecutors sat down with another county staffer recently, one who has intimate knowledge of the county's contracting process. They focused on the approval process and asked about roughly a dozen contracts, including the one with CGC and the Census outreach contracts. The prosecutors asked at one point about the few days it took -- rather than the typical weeks or sometimes months -- between approving the CGC contract and the county paying the firm.

"They asked me, 'Didn't this raise a red flag, all of this happening in a week?' I told them, 'It's not common, but it does happen that you'll have someone who forgets [to put in the paperwork] and needs [a vendor] to be paid quickly,' " the county employee said last week.

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