Daily Herald Watchdog reports spur new legislation, transparency
State rep introduces legislation after Jake Griffin story
New legislation was introduced in Springfield following a Daily Herald report on a state worker who kept his job for a year after investigators learned he was fudging safety reports.
Pensions for the Naperville City Council might come to an end as the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund begins an audit.
Wheeling Village President Dean Argiris' purchase card spending might be valid, but some question whether it's transparent enough.
These are some of the updates to previous stories and revelations from reader tips we cobble together occasionally for something we've dubbed watchdog kibble. Here's the latest helping:
State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, has introduced a bill that would allow the Illinois executive inspector general to notify state department heads of misdeeds of workers that put the public's safety at risk.
The legislation is in response to a Daily Herald investigation last month that revealed a state amusement ride inspector was allowed to keep his job for more than a year even after inspector general investigators learned he had lied about inspecting a new ski lift at Villa Olivia, which is owned by the Bartlett Park District.
State law now prevents Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza's office from releasing information about a state worker until an investigation is complete.
"The inspector general should let state directors know to minimize any potential harm," Crespo said. "In this case, there was a risk to the public, and this guy was still out there."
The worker, Chuck Drager, of Lisle, was initially investigated by Meza's office for taking unexcused time off work to perform at singing engagements throughout the suburbs while still on the clock for the Department of Labor. During the course of the investigation, Meza's office uncovered more wrongdoing, which extended the investigation. Because of the way the law was written, the more Drager did wrong, the longer he got to keep his job as investigators researched the case.
Crespo drafted the bill with input from Meza's office.
"This was a limitation that was placed on our office for good reason," said Meza, of Arlington Heights. "But if we think there's a potential for public safety risks, I have no problem with the agency knowing about it. I think (this bill) is another good mechanism that allows us to provide additional information to an agency director who has some discretion to take some action."
Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund auditors showed up at the Naperville Municipal Center this week.
The visit was not unexpected, as officials from the retirement system noted in a Daily Herald report last month that the agency would be auditing the city this month. The report detailed Councilman Grant Wehrli's failed attempt to avoid becoming vested in the retirement system and therefore eligible for a lifetime pension.
As part of the audit, City Attorney Margo Ely sent a note to elected city council members notifying them that they would have to sign an affidavit declaring they work more than 1,000 hours a year in order to continue to qualify for the pension.
In the wake of that dispatch, Wehrli and fellow councilmen Bob Fieseler and Steve Chirico have said they won't sign the affidavit. If two other council members refuse to sign, the retirement fund can automatically remove council positions from the city's roster of pensionable jobs.
"While I have no doubt I can fulfill the minimum requirement, plus some, to meet the 1,000 hours, I haven't kept any log or anything to support that," Chirico said.
"I would have no way of backing up what I'm saying. I don't know why I'd want to put myself in a position to defend my word."
However, at least one councilman said he plans to sign the affidavit and has begun keeping track of his hours.
Councilman Paul Hinterlong said he's accrued 226 hours working as a councilman since the beginning of the year. He said that includes "meetings with staff, filling in for the mayor, office work, reading budgets and agendas and returning phone calls from residents."
Hinterlong said it's up to each council member to decide "how much you want to make of" the position.
As for Wehrli's plight, retirement fund spokesman John Krupa said Wehrli can actually get out of his pension even though he became vested in December. If Wehrli is no longer in office by the time he is 55, he could simply ask for a refund of his contributions and receive that amount minus any interest accrued, Krupa said. Wehrli, 45, said he would still attempt to make the position ineligible for pensions in the future.
"It's still a perk I don't think we've earned," he said.
Since taking office last May, Wheeling Village President Dean Argiris has amassed more than $2,000 in charges on his village-issued purchase card.
Almost $1,400 of that was spent on food, often at village-related functions for himself as well as other trustees, village staff and occasionally spouses.
While most receipts for Argiris' food spending show where purchases were made and who was with him, none of the restaurant tabs reveal what was purchased.
Argiris said all of the expenses are related to village business and no alcohol was purchased. Village finance officials said there is no requirement that Argiris or other village staff with purchase cards provide itemized receipts for food.
While Argiris defended the spending and argued the village follows "strict policies" recommended by auditors, others argue the accounting could be more transparent.
"Since the money we're talking about here is taxpayer money it is appropriate to demand as much transparency as possible and it be spent with the utmost care," said David From, Illinois director of Americans for Prosperity, a taxpayer advocacy group. "Taxpayers deserve to see how their money is being spent and having more transparency removes any question whether the money is being spent poorly or appropriately."
Sheila Weinberg, CEO of Truth in Accounting, said elected official "always have to be careful whether personal expenses are co-mingled." She said government agencies that allow elected officers access to taxpayer-funded purchase cards should have policies in place to assure proper use.
"For good government practices it would always be good to have standard policies on what type of items can and can't be purchased," she said.