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posted: 1/15/2010 12:01 AM

Suburban Cook education chief arrested on corruption charges

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A top Cook County education official was arrested on corruption charges Thursday.

Charles Flowers, 51, of Maywood, who was the superintendent of the Cook County Regional Office of Education focusing on suburban schools, was charged with theft and official misconduct, both felonies.

Prosecutors charged him with stealing more than $10,000 from the regional office, with a total loss to the public office of $376,000.

In effect, it was the other shoe dropping on Flowers, who was hit with a civil suit by the county state's attorney's office last summer after an audit first raised questions about misuse of funds. Flowers and the office were charged with fraud and breach of contract over an unrepaid $190,000 loan issued by the county in 2008.

The new charges accused Flowers of putting personal items on his office credit card and making cash advances to employees that were never fully repaid, including $6,000 to his sister, whom he'd hired as an assistant, and $9,000 to his girlfriend, hired as a school compliance liaison. Flowers also allegedly used restricted grant funds to pad the salaries of two $80,000-a-year employees with $21,000 in "consulting fees," even though the state's attorney's investigation turned up no evidence that any consulting services were ever performed.

"He was stealing in more ways than one," said Jack Blakey, chief of the special prosecutions bureau.

Flowers took office in July 2007, charged with overseeing state educational mandates, teacher certifications, local grants and background checks for suburban public schools. The state's attorney's office opened an investigation into his activities about a year ago.

"Within months of taking office, this man engaged in a bold and brazen scheme to defraud," said Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. "It is a repulsive example of public corruption, and today's charges should serve as a reminder to anyone who would engage in this type of conduct that they will be held accountable here in Cook County."

County Commissioner Liz Gorman, an Orland Park Republican, issued a statement pointing out she had worked closely with Flowers' predecessor and knew something was wrong in his office, opposing the initial $190,000 loan.

"It's such a shame that the voters chose to replace a well-respected career educator and a man with the highest integrity like Robert Ingraffia with an alleged criminal like Charles Flowers," she said.

Flowers was being held on a $100,000 bond and has a court hearing Friday in Maywood.