8 county workers charged with fraud

January 25, 2008 3:08:54 PM PST
Eight people are charged with fraud in connection with a scheme to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from Cook County and the city of Chicago.The money was intended to help people learn job skills. Now, prosecutors say three high-level county workers put the fix-in.

A company called United Front was literally a front, according to prosecutors.

Two of the people charged with running the sham training centers are ministers at Christian Hope Church on S. Greenwood. But it wasn't help from above that gave this group the in, according to prosecutors. It was the fix allegedly put-in by some well-connected Cook County employees.

They crowded around a closed-circuit camera beaming their pictures into a courtroom. Senior citizens, mainly, accused of scamming the county and, specifically, citizens who lined up to learn carpentry skills to get a job.

Among those charged Friday was the former executive director of former Cook County Board President John Stroger's Office of Employment Training. His name is Rudolph Sanchez. Prosecutors say he and two top deputies fixed it so United Front would be certified to receive government training grants.

"This took it out of the realm of what merit this vendor has, the qualifications the vendor has, and put them in a position where not only could they do business with the county but the city and the housing authority," said Richard Devine, Cook County State's Attorney.

Here's how prosecutors say the defendants made their money. Federal and state grants, filtered through the county and city, paid United Front $4,500 for each person trained. For a year and a half, the money rolled in. But prosecutor say site inspections revealed virtually no classrooms, no equipment and no training took place.

"There were other people who told her what to do, then she did what she was told to do," said Ben Myers, defense attorney.

Myers represents a former United Front employee who claims people were trained.

"My understanding is they did what they were supposed to do. Whether it was done to the government's standards or the degree they wanted, I don't know about that," said Myers.

The President's Office of Employment Training has long been a dumping ground for politically connected cronies from the 8th Ward. In 2005, POET's fiscal manager, Shirley Glover, was charged with stealing $180,000 from the agency.

"Anybody can speculate about what it would take to accomplish. Some of these things we are not allowed to speculate. The charges speak for themselves, and the investigation has not been terminated," said Devine.

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger released a statement saying the alleged fraud took place before he came to office.

County Commissioner Deborah Simms confirmed that she helped one of the defendants, Ron Harper, get his county job. Simms went to high school with his wife. Harper was arrested and handcuffed at his county office Thursday and then immediately fired.