Ex-waste agency leader accused of stealing $850,000

The former head of the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County turned himself in to law enforcement officials late Thursday and will appear in bond court today to answer charges that he stole nearly $850,000 from the agency.

Charges against 47-year-old Brooke Beal of Chicago will be announced at the bond hearing, Cook County state's attorney spokeswoman Sally Daly said. State's Attorney Anita Alvarez is expected to hold a news conference after the hearing to discuss the case further.

Beal was in custody overnight, Daly said. Attempts to reach Beal's attorney for comment were unsuccessful.

The allegations against Beal came to light in October during the agency's annual audit, agency leaders told the Daily Herald on Thursday. The agency handles solid waste transfers to landfills for nearly 30 suburban communities.

George Van Dusen, chairman of the agency and Skokie's mayor, said the auditor had discovered significant unauthorized spending from the agency's “personal development fund.” Van Dusen said the figure was “eye-popping” but at the time thought to be only around $250,000.

Within days, the board suspended Beal, who shortly thereafter resigned from the $160,000-a-year job. The board halted operations for a day to secure the agency's computers and brought in a company to protect all the electronic files, Van Dusen said.

A forensic audit commissioned after Beal's suspension indicated he had written himself checks totaling almost $850,000 over the course of the last six years of his tenure at the agency, Van Dusen said. Beal had been with the agency since 1989 and been at its helm since 1993.

“It started out very small and in the last two years hit a crescendo,” Van Dusen said.

Investigators allege Beal wrote unauthorized checks to himself worth nearly $600,000 over the past two years, apparently under the auspices of an agency program that covers employee costs for industry training or educational advancement. The agency sets aside a little more than $20,000 each year for the program, officials said.

Beal was supposed to receive authorization from the board's treasurer to participate in any programs and provide invoices. But Van Dusen said those costs were hidden until they got so exorbitant that they caught the attention of the auditor.

Officials acknowledged it would have been easy for Beal to hide the expenses because he also acted as the agency's financial head. The board is now looking into outsourcing accounting responsibilities in the future, Van Dusen said.

Van Dusen said Beal was even telling board members about programs he was participating in at some of the nation's elite universities. But investigators claim that Beal never attended any of the classes or programs.

“I trusted him,” Van Dusen said. “I had every reason to believe he was taking courses.”

Hoffman Estates Village Manager Jim Norris, who has been the board's treasurer since May, said the forensic audit report is expected to be completed soon and presented to the entire board. He offered an apology to taxpayers but noted that the agency was the victim of crime, too.

“Where it should have been caught was where it was caught, with the auditor,” Norris said.

Norris said investigators allege Beal may have doctored the agency's financial reports to keep the board from discovering the payments he was making to himself.

Waste agency officials said the missing money didn't result in any fee hikes or tax increases to residents living in communities served by the agency. Van Dusen said the agency will file a lawsuit against Beal next week seeking “restitution” for the money he is accused of taking, plus the expenses of the investigation. The forensic audit was estimated to cost between $30,000 and $35,000, officials said.

Van Dusen said he spoke with Beal immediately after the missing funds were reported, but Beal offered no explanation or admission of guilt.

“It was devastating,” Van Dusen said. “I admired Brooke. I trusted him. I had no reason not to trust him.”

The agency is still searching for Beal's replacement. In the interim, Steven Schilling has been leading the four-employee office in Glenview.