Wheeling changes policy after Argiris' spending, SUV use questioned

Wheeling Village President Dean Argiris has turned over his village credit card and the keys to a decommissioned police SUV after questions arose about his use of the taxpayer-funded perks.

Village officials say Argiris voluntarily gave up the purchasing card late last year after he spent $462 at Italian eatery Tuscany Restaurant on Oct. 22, the day the Chicago Cubs beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to clinch a World Series berth. Argiris described the charge as a mistake - records show he repaid the village months later - and Village Manager Jon Sfondilis said he won't be disciplined for a one-time error.

"I think that everything that was done was done in good faith," Sfondilis said.

But Argiris often used the credit card for purchases he later reimbursed, and the first-term village president failed to provide receipts for numerous expenses, according to documents obtained through public records requests.

A Daily Herald investigation into the village's financial protocols prompted new policies for using purchasing cards - village presidents will no longer get one - and village vehicles. Argiris had been driving a police department Ford Interceptor without formal restrictions.

The village also is crafting a new rule advising elected officials to follow the same laws as residents.

Records show Argiris has been months late paying water bills while serving as the village's top elected official. The village has threatened to shut off his water 17 times. In March 2015, he owed $807 in water bills and late fees. Argiris has since paid the bills and late fees.

Argiris filed for bankruptcy a week after voters elected him in April 2013. Regarding the water bills, he said, "Like many people, I have had some financial struggles."

Argiris, who is running for re-election April 4, said he has never used his elected office for personal gain. He called the scrutiny politically motivated and based on "unfounded concerns."

However, Ricardo Meza, the state's former executive inspector general who investigated government waste, fraud and abuse at various state agencies, said it appears Argiris took advantage of loose guidelines to circumvent the few safeguards that did exist.

"When they start skirting one or two policies," Meza said, "that's when communities have to worry, and that's when abuses occur."

In the past

Deborah Wilson, a Wheeling resident who is upset with the village's response to a police complaint, sparked the inquiry of Argiris. She collected and shared documents showing the village president had possibly lied about his arrest record in a Daily Herald questionnaire before the 2013 election.

In 1994, Argiris was fined for offering an undercover Chicago police officer $20 for oral sex, according to Cook County court records. Argiris has consistently denied he lied on the questionnaire, saying police didn't arrest him. He's offered varying accounts of the matter.

Initially, Argiris said a drunken passenger yelled at the undercover cop when he stopped at a traffic light, and the solicitation charge stemmed entirely from the fact Argiris was driving the car. Argiris did not name the passenger.

Later, Argiris said a police officer had knocked on his car window as part of a "sting" to earn revenue for the city of Chicago.

Argiris later provided a Feb. 9 letter from Wheeling attorney Vincent M. Stavros, who said the quasi-criminal complaint was a civil case, not a criminal arrest or conviction.

The case led the Daily Herald to investigate Argiris' tenure as village president.

Missing receipts

Village financial records show Argiris spent nearly $13,000 on a village-issued credit card from late July 2013 to October 2016. Most charges were at restaurants and bars, but others were for charitable events, hotel rooms and parking for village-related trips, as well as a cultural exchange trip to South Korea, for example.

Argiris most often swiped the credit card at Market Square, a pub and restaurant about a half-mile from village hall. Other expenses include a $216 bar tab at Tavern on Rush in Chicago with Trustee Mary Krueger for a mayor's gala dinner, a $121 dinner at Saranello's Ristorante Italiano with Trustee Ken Brady that included a 44 percent tip, and a $179 charge - with no receipt provided - at Cooper's Hawk Winery with Chicago Executive Airport board member David Kolssak, whose family's funeral home business employs Argiris.

In all, Argiris did not provide receipts for 15 purchases.

Krueger did not return a phone call and Brady could not recall the dinner at Saranello's in January 2014.

About two years into Argiris' presidency, the village finance department implemented a system of billing Argiris for charges he promised to reimburse. The 26 charges marked for reimbursement do not mention village business.

Village policy states "purchasing cards shall be used for official Village of Wheeling purchases only," with the word "official" underlined and written in bold type.

Sfondilis said a new purchasing card policy will require more stringent descriptions of the purpose for the expense.

Argiris has paid the village for all expenses he deemed reimbursable, though the payments often occurred months or even years after the charges, documents show. For example, Argiris repaid the village more than two years after he spent $61 at Market Square.

"There's a big risk of abuse with regard to credit cards," Meza said. "Folks sometimes get into financial situations where they might not have the resources to pay for a particular item, and they end up using them for personal reasons."

In a statement, Argiris defended his spending.

"I used that card for village-related expenses, and always with the goal of improving the village," he said. "I have never intentionally used the village card for personal expenses."

New policies

Some government transparency advocates have suggested Argiris' use of the village card and car constitutes "official misconduct."

John Kraft, co-founder of Edgar County Watchdogs, the group whose investigation into questionable spending at the College of DuPage led to the ousting of longtime President Robert Breuder, said Argiris admitted he used the vehicle for personal purposes in violation of the state constitution's prohibition of such activities.

"To use a public credit card for his private business, and to use the village vehicle for his private business to make money - that's knowingly using it for personal gain," Kraft said. "To be doing this with the knowledge of the city manager and city attorney, it's kind of unusual."

After weeks of questions and inquiries about the village president's purchasing card, SUV and payment of his water bills, the village finally acted to curb Argiris' activities.

Sfondilis and village staffers drafted a series of policy updates that limit access to credit cards and vehicles by elected officials. The vehicle policy went into effect this month.

Additionally, a new rule is being created that addresses elected officials and past-due utility bills, village officials said.

Sfondilis maintains Argiris has never inappropriately used taxpayer-funded resources or abused power as village president.

"But you're right, we are changing policies to make our business and our internal operations more efficient and more transparent," he said.

Elected officials have also worked to sweeten the president's job. After the election, the job will pay $19,200 a year, a 75 percent increase over what Argiris currently makes in that role.

• Daily Herald staff writers Jake Griffin and Eric Peterson contributed to this story.

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  Wheeling Village President Dean Argiris speaks during an interview with the Daily Herald. Joe Lewnard/
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