Lawlor won't seek re-election to Lake County Board; authorities to investigate expense account use

Already on leave as he undergoes treatment for an unspecified drug addiction, Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor on Tuesday revealed he won't seek re-election in November and is extending his absence from the board indefinitely.

Lawlor, a Vernon Hills Republican, announced his decisions in emails to his fellow board members and the media.

“Since entering treatment, I have learned the importance of not letting anyone or anything get between my serenity and my recovery,” Lawlor wrote. “Accordingly, I am withdrawing my candidacy for re-election this week.”

Lawlor said he is prolonging his leave from the board “until further notice.”

Lawlor, 36, represents Lake County's 18th District, which includes Vernon Hills and Indian Creek and parts of Hawthorn Woods, Long Grove and Mundelein. The county board doubles as the Lake County Forest Preserve District board.

Lawlor's departure from the race leaves Vernon Hills Democrat Julie Simpson as the lone candidate. Republican Party leaders have until Aug. 23 to choose a new candidate and submit that person's name to the county clerk's office for inclusion on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The process can't start until Lawlor formally files a withdrawal notice with the county clerk, said Mark Shaw, leader of the Lake County Republican organization.

Lawlor disclosed his addiction and announced his leave of absence in an email July 30. He said his addiction had affected his “personal finances” but didn't provide specifics.

Lawlor said he is being treated at a Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation center. The organization has facilities throughout the U.S.

Lawlor initially said he would return to his duties after Aug. 30, but that changed Tuesday.

Lawlor joined the county board in 2009 and has been its chairman since 2012. The board's chairman is chosen by its members.

County board Vice Chairwoman Carol Calabresa, a Libertyville Republican, is leading the panel in Lawlor's absence.

On Tuesday, Calabresa called Lawlor courageous and praised him for being open about his addiction.

“I am relieved that he will give his recovery work 100 percent of his time and attention,” Calabresa said. “We all pray for his full recovery.”

In his email to county commissioners, Lawlor thanked them for their support and kindness.

But some county officials are concerned about Lawlor's use of his county expense account.

Every Lake County Board member has access to individual expense accounts with $7,000 annual limits. The accounts exist to cover purchases related to their elected duties and are not to be used for personal purchases.

Funds can be accessed with a debit card called a procurement card, or commissioners can be reimbursed from the accounts after they make purchases with their own money.

The county board chairman's account contains an additional $3,000 that should be used for purchases related to the chairman's job, not district-related duties, according to board rules.

Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim on Tuesday said he contacted an independent law enforcement agency last week to review Lawlor's card use. Coordination with that agency could be finalized this week, Nerheim said.

“The public has a right to know,” Nerheim said. “This needs to be thoroughly investigated.”

Copies of invoices from Lawlor's procurement card were obtained by the Daily Herald. They date to 2016 and show, as recently as June, Lawlor's card was used to pay for three nights at two downtown Chicago hotels and for three ride-hailing charges totaling $148. In all, $1,176.67 was charged to the card in June.

In an undated “policy exception form” signed by Lawlor, he acknowledged the June charges, asked that his card be canceled and complained that the ride-hail charges were not his. He wrote that he will reimburse the county for the expenses.

A copy of a $1,1176.67 check dated July 15, 2018, to the Lake County treasurer from Lawlor is included in the documents, but it is unclear if the check was cashed.

The board's financial and administrative committee is scheduled to discuss procurement card policy when it meets at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the county building in Waukegan.

Committee leader Mike Rummel, a Lake Forest Republican, said a “general discussion” is planned.

County board member Paul Frank, a Highland Park Democrat, said he is concerned about how Lawlor used his card and plans to ask questions.

“We all owe it to taxpayers to be accountable for our actions,” Frank said. “We need to look at how the public money is being spent and enact policy to prevent future abuses.”

Aside from the debit card issue, Lawlor faces a $15,000 fine from the Illinois State Board of Elections for violating campaign finance disclosure laws. That fine could have kept him off the ballot.

Lawlor's campaign committee hasn't filed any reports with the state election board since November 2016, according to the agency's website. The election board notified Lawlor last month that his campaign committee had been dissolved because of the outstanding fine and lack of financial disclosures.

During the past two years, Lawlor has been a defendant in foreclosure and eviction proceedings, according to Lake County court records. He also has been ordered to pay more than $10,000 to credit card companies this year, court records also show.

•Daily Herald staff writer Jake Griffin contributed to this report.

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