The South-Town Star bY PHIL KADNER - April 16, 2009
CHICAGO, IL - Suburban government corruption is being targeted by Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart. Dart has formed a new Financial Crimes/Public Corruption Unit, the first of its kind in the sheriff's office, to investigate allegations of corruption in school districts, park boards and municipalities. "That's been a special interest of mine ever since I was an assistant state's attorney and began investigating corruption in the Ford Heights Police Department many years ago," Dart said. In the 1990s, six Ford Heights police officers, including the police chief, were eventually indicted by the federal government for taking bribes from drug dealers. Dart said that while the federal government often targets "the big fish" in public corruption, they don't always have the resources or the time to investigate allegations of wrongdoing at the lower levels of suburban government. While the Cook County state's attorney has a responsibility to prosecute such cases, the officeholders there have had a spotty record at best. Some suspect that state's attorneys have wanted to look the other way because they rely on local government leaders for support come re-election time. Dart's office has no ability to prosecute criminals, so any evidence of wrongdoing would still have to be turned over to the state's attorney. "I think they would be grateful for any help they can get," said one member of Dart's new unit. "Like all county agencies these days, they're suffering from budget cuts just like the rest of us and there's a lack of manpower."
A spokeswoman for State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said: "If the sheriff is able to muster the resources during these tough times to expand the scope of his duties, we welcome the help." But she noted the state's attorney's special prosecutions bureau already investigates allegations of corruption. Dart's Financial Crimes/Public Corruption Unit consists of two former assistant state's attorneys and four police officers. "These are people who have done these sorts of investigations before," Dart said. "I wouldn't have formed this unit if I didn't think I had the right people in place to do the job. These individuals have expertise in this area." One of the attorneys in the unit successfully prosecuted a former Sauk Village school superintendent for the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars as the result of a series of stories in the Daily Southtown in 2005.
The financial crimes part of the unit, Dart said, will be tasked with investigating such things as mortgage fraud and gang crimes. "With the economic problems we've been having there are more financial crimes taking place," Dart said. "In addition, street gangs have become much more sophisticated with how they invest their money and we need to be aware of what they're doing." I mentioned to Dart that law enforcement officials in the past have kept a distance from public corruption cases for fear of a backlash from political leaders. "We're not going to be looking through garbage cans to find something," Dart said. "No one who is honest has reason to fear this. But we're talking about tax money here and if public officials are using it for illegal purposes I believe it's a proper law enforcement function to bring those people to justice. "We are going to be relying quite heavily on private citizens to provide us with information about this kind of activity. I realize not all of the tips will be valid. "Some people will be calling because their brother-in-law wasn't hired, but that's where the expertise of our staff comes into play. They will be able to decide which tips are worth pursuing and which ones are not. "The important thing is that people call us if they suspect corruption is taking place." The telephone number for the Financial Crimes/Public Corruption Unit is (708) 865-4518 . When I called, one of the attorneys assigned to the unit answered the phone. "That's my job," he said. "I'm going to answer the calls. I'm here to talk to the public. And if there's something worth investigating, we're going to go after it."
I'm told that members of the unit have already contacted the Illinois State Board of Education to let officials there know that if there are any complaints of illegal activity by school board members they're prepared to look into the matter. As someone who has spent 30 years listening to citizen allegations of public corruption, I'm cautiously optimistic about this new approach. It has been extremely difficult to get law enforcement officials to probe allegations of corruption on the suburban level. Now both the Cook County state's attorney and sheriff seem to be saying this is one of their top priorities. Put them to the test. If you suspect some suburban official is involved corruption, give these folks a call. Let me know how it turns out. Phil Kadner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (708) 633-6787.