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Article updated: 11/24/2011 7:50 AM

DuPage forest district paying consultants $66,000

By Elisabeth Mistretta

After the DuPage Forest Preserve District forced out two employees suspected of misusing taxpayer funds and resources, the district announced Wednesday it has hired two consulting firms at a cost of $66,000 to assist with the matter.

The announcement comes two days after the Daily Herald sent a Freedom of Information request to the district seeking details on the expenses.

On Nov. 15, the same day the district fired one of the suspected employees, the board also unanimously approved a contract with Reverse Spin, LLC, a Wheaton-based political consulting firm that's worked on statewide campaigns and with DuPage agencies.

The contract will pay the firm $48,000 for one year to be on call 24/7 for crisis situations. Officials said Reverse Spin also will assist the district in traditional public relations, social media and transparency efforts.

In July, the forest preserve board approved an $18,000 contract with JRM Consulting Inc. of Naperville, an independent computer consulting firm. The group conducted an internal computer forensics review.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the review said it revealed two employees may have steered professional service contracts to companies they benefitted from personally. The two had worked for the forest preserve for five years and 10 years, respectively. The second employee resigned Nov. 7.

Sources said the contracts were worth about $12,000 a month and go back at least a year. Contracts worth less than $20,000 can be awarded without board consent, according to forest preserve policy.

Forest preserve officials said they released findings from JRM's investigation to DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin's office. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Berlin confirmed the office received materials from the forest preserve and they are under review. It could be months before any decision to press charges might be made, officials added.

Both JRM and Reverse Spin did not submit competitive bids, which is not required for personal service contracts.

Reverse Spin also has held contracts with the DuPage County Election Commission since at least 2007, according to public records on the DuPage County website.

So far this fiscal year, Reverse Spin has received $30,000 from the commission, records show, and received $21,000 for services in 2010. Co-owner Dan Curry also worked in statewide campaigns of former State's Attorney Joe Birkett, was communications director for former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, and press secretary for former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan.

Forest Preserve President D. "Dewey" Pierotti declined to comment on how the district chose Reverse Spin.

The forest preserve already employs six-person public relations team, with a combined salary of nearly $400,000 per year and approximately 90 years of combined experience. But officials said hiring outside consultants is not uncommon for the district, and public relations consultants have previously been hired.

"We can maximize staff levels without paying what you would for a full-time employee, along with benefits or a long-term commitment," said forest preserve spokesman Bill Weidner. "This makes it an effective use of tax dollars."

While Weidner confirmed Reverse Spin was hired because of the firm's crisis communications expertise, he said its duties will be broad.

"The district is such an intensely busy environment," said Weidner. "It's a challenge for the staff we have trying to promote our five education facilities, 60 preserves and dozens of special events, and in the same sense trying to tell people about the natural restoration areas, access improvements and master plans ... I could go on and on.

"(Reverse Spin) will be reviewing our efforts and making suggestions in social media areas," he added.

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