U.S. attorney investigating Commissioner Beavers

October 20, 2010 (CHICAGO)

The Cook County Board is confirming the existence of a grand jury investigation into Commissioner Beavers' use of a $10,000 "contingency expense account" that all county commissioners get.

Beavers said subpoenas are served all the time and he will speak out more forcefully when he receives a copy of it.

Analysts are saying U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald is sending a signal to politicians at all levels with his investigation.

Each county commissioner gets $800 to spend with little oversight or regulation. The county board reduced that sum by a third earlier this year.

Five commissioners, including the 16th District's Tony Peraica, don't take the expense account.

"I could not get anyone to support me from either side of the aisle," Peraica said, "to eliminate this slush fund, essentially, that people use to pay their college tuitions, luxury car leases, fancy restaurant bills, season ticket expenses for various sporting events."

The subpoena for Beavers 2008 and 2009 spending was directed at the secretary of the Cook County Board.

The U.S. attorney would not comment on the matter, but Peraica sees the symbolism in Fitzgerald's actions.

"Everyone is now on notice that this is something that they have to monitor and control very carefully," said Peraica.

Off camera, Beavers said that "nothing surprises me about subpoenas," and "it does not concern me."

Seventeenth District Commissioner Liz Gorman has been criticized for using part of her contingency fund to cover tuition for her Notre Dame executive MBA. She says spending on her education benefits taxpayers. Her opponent in the November election disagrees.

"Under that same philosophy, she could also apply for medical school and have taxpayers pay for her to go get her medical degree," said 17th District candidate Patrick Maher. "I think it's a complete overuse of the money."

The Better Government Association says the legal action can be viewed as a slight changing of attitudes toward how public money is spent.

"They're looking at deficits across the board. This is not a ton of money we are talking about, $800 a month per commissioner, but they have to start somewhere with this," said BGA's Patrick Rehkamp. "And, if they are looking to close the loopholes, this is something they should consider."

Beavers has said funds he does not expense on his contingency account he declares as income and pays tax on those sums.

Many commissioners said the contingency account amounts to a $10,000 salary hike, and if that is what commissioners want, they should have a debate about it.

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