Lake County Board eliminates credit cards for commissioners

 
 
Updated 12/12/2018 9:24 AM
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  • Lake County Board member Paul Frank

    Lake County Board member Paul Frank

  • Aaron Lawlor

    Aaron Lawlor

  • Lake County Board member Julie Simpson

    Lake County Board member Julie Simpson

Editor's note: To clarify, a board member can spend up to $2,500 in county funds annually on approved travel expenses and spend up to $500 in county funds on office supplies to be purchased by staffers. Board members also can use up to $4,000 in county funds annually to print and distribute constituent mailers about county business.

In its first act of reform since the November election, the Lake County Board on Tuesday abolished the taxpayer-funded credit cards commissioners have used -- and sometimes abused -- for more than a decade.

Board members now will have to request reimbursement for legitimate expenses from limited annual allowances, and spending will be reviewed by county staffers.

The move -- part of a mostly mundane collection of procedural changes the board adopted after lengthy debates -- was prompted by former board Chairman Aaron Lawlor's repeated misuse of his card.

Lawlor, a Vernon Hills Republican who didn't seek re-election in November and who was absent the last four months of his term, remains the subject of an Illinois State Police investigation.

County board member Paul Frank, who leads the rules committee that crafted the changes, called eliminating the credit cards "a really positive step forward."

"It's a strong signal that we take our responsibility to the taxpayer seriously," said Frank, a Highland Park Democrat.

Newly elected county Treasurer Holly Kim lauded the move before the vote, saying eliminating the cards "goes a long way" to restoring public trust in county government.

Card history

County board members had been issued credit cards -- formally called procurement cards -- since 2005. Most took and used them; some didn't.

Lake was the only Chicago-area county to issue credit cards to its commissioners.

Under the old expense policy, every Lake County Board member had access to individual accounts with $7,000 annual limits. The board chairman's account contained an additional $3,000.

Funds could be accessed with the credit cards or through reimbursement.

The accounts were designed to cover work-related purchases. But county policy didn't specify what types of purchases were proper or improper.

Commissioners used the cards to pay for internet services, limousine rides, airline tickets and other products and services, a 2011 Daily Herald investigation showed. Trips to government conferences in Hawaii and Washington, D.C., were funded with the cards, records showed, as well as unspecified purchases at drugstores, restaurants and office supply stores.

Receipts were supposed to be provided for all transactions, but administrators monitoring the accounts had to trust purchases were work-related.

Potential for abuse

Government watchdogs cautioned about the public perception of taxpayer-funded credit cards and the potential for abuse.

That potential became a reality this summer.

Citing treatment for an unspecified drug addiction he said affected his finances, Lawlor began a leave of absence in late July. Documents subsequently reviewed by the Daily Herald revealed Lawlor used his county credit card to make personal purchases totaling thousands of dollars.

Lawlor has repaid the county for the charges he identified as personal, officials said.

After Lawlor's spending issues became public, county officials pledged to change procedures and improve oversight of card usage, but no action was taken until Tuesday.

New spending rules

The new policy says the funds only can be used for:

• Travel for county business.

• Attendance at preapproved government training programs and other events related to board duties.

• Specific office supplies, such as paper, stamps and printer ink.

• Personal cellular phone service for officials who don't use county-issued phones.

Under the policy, a board member can spend up to $2,500 in county funds annually on approved travel expenses and spend up to $500 in county funds on office supplies to be purchased by staffers. Cellphone reimbursement is a flat $56 per month. Board members also can use up to $4,000 in county funds annually to print and distribute constituent mailers about county business.

The county administrator or a designated employee will review all commissioner spending monthly. Commissioners' spending records will be posted on the county website on their individual pages.

Spending irregularities or disputes will be referred to the county board's ethics and oversight committee.

Vernon Hills Democrat Julie Simpson, who replaced Lawlor on the board, praised what she called "swift action" by the panel.

"Tightening oversight and increasing transparency of county board members' expenses was needed," Simpson said.

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