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Article updated: 12/6/2011 4:27 PM

Forest preserve investigation cost now $61,000

By Elisabeth Mistretta

DuPage County Forest Preserve officials hired a computer forensic company for $18,000 this summer to investigate possible misdoings, but revealed Tuesday the cost of the probe has jumped to more than $61,000.

Officials approved the initial contract with JRM Consulting, Inc., of Naperville in mid-July to learn whether taxpayer funds were being misused by the district's information technology staff. Professional service contracts worth less than $20,000 can be awarded without board consent, according to forest preserve policy.

But Tuesday's amendment to the original contract revealed that the district spent another $43,000 to continue the investigation beyond the initial two-month audit that ended Sept. 23. Commissioners approved the amendment unanimously.

Forest preserve attorney Bob Mork said the extension was necessary to ensure accusations against two employees -- one who resigned Nov. 7 and one who was fired Nov. 15 -- were true.

"The reality here is we were dealing with the livelihood of two individuals," Mork said. "These were their jobs. We take that very seriously. It wasn't long before (JRM) essentially used up all of the compensation that was provided for the original contract, however the investigation was by no means complete."

Mork and Commissioner Mike Formento said the district also worried about computer system security breaches during the investigation, and said the nature of JRM's audit was kept secret so as not to tip off suspected employees.

"If all of this came out too early, there might have been damage to that system (and) that could have crippled this district," Formento said. "Absolute caution was the first thing in front of us. I want to be perfectly clear that the board was aware of all of the circumstances and agreed to do this in a way that was compliant with the investigation, as well as the law."

JRM's additional services were billed in two parts: one for about $29,000 that lasted from Sept. 25 to Oct. 31, and another for nearly $14,000 that ran from Nov. 1-18. Because this was an amendment to the original contract, competitive bids were also not required per district policy.

Invoices from both rounds of audits show six investigators continued meetings with IT and district staff members, while also reviewing the computer system configuration, retrieving and changing passwords and transitioning to a more secure system.

"The information we got from JRM, ultimately, was of a nature that we thought we'd have to provide it to the State's Attorney's office," Mork said.

The forest preserve turned over findings to DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin's office three days after the investigation ended. Officials there said the matter is under review.

But sources with knowledge of JRM's work said it revealed the resigned and fired employees steered contracts worth about $12,000 a month to companies they benefited from personally. Those contracts, which also did not require board consent, go back at least a year, they added.

Several area residents spoke out Tuesday against the forest preserve's policy that does not require bids for professional service contracts less than $20,000. Paula McGowen of Glen Ellyn said that lack of oversight led to the $61,000 investigation -- and influenced the approval of a $48,000 contract with public relations company Reverse Spin -- in the first place.

"I'm concerned there were no safeguards in place that allowed your no-bid policy to be apparently abused by district employees," McGowan said.

Dennis Clark, a Democratic candidate in the March 20 primary for the District 5 commissioner seat, also argued against the practice.

"With no-bid contracts, you have no basis for making a decision," he said. "It's surprising to me that no-bid contracts get approved so often and so quickly. Imagine the money that could have been saved for worthy projects."

But Mork and forest preserve President D. "Dewey" Pierotti said bidding on low-cost contracts defies a state statute, created to ensure governments can seek out the most qualified providers.

"In other words, you save money by hiring qualified firms," Mork said. "The forest preserve has always followed that statute ... If you don't like the law, then you should contact your representatives in Springfield. We follow the law in all of our contracts."

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