I-Team Report: Middle Men

December 1, 2010 (CHICAGO)

It's been nearly three months since the I-Team's first report into how the Stroger administration spent federal grant money intended for flood relief. Now, as the county opens an investigation into the program, we've found the middle men agencies that profit while funneling hundreds of thousands of grant dollars from the county to flood-stricken homeowners.

"I think a majority of the money went to a good purpose," said Peter Laporte, West Suburban Neighborhood Preservation Agency.

Against the backdrop of a large safe, Laporte explained his role as a middle man for Cook County.

In the Melrose Park government senior citizen center, Laporte pays $1 a year to rent a non-descript office on the second floor. His West Suburban Neighborhood Preservation Agency isn't part of the government. It's a private not-for-profit organization - one of five countywide that received a chunk of money from Cook County to dole out to victims of the 2008 floods.

"Five hundred thousand? Yeah. And 500 flew out," said Laporte.

He coordinated initial inspections of flood-damaged homes, earning $400 per home, and he supervised the reconstruction for $800 per home.

"I saw what they did in some of these houses and they did a very nice job," said Laporte.

When he added it all up for the I-Team, Laporte said he is slated to receive more than $80,000 for being the county's middle man.

"I think it was less than what we should have gotten. We should have gotten more than what we did," said Laporte.

Just a few blocks away, flood victim Marilyn Thurman would've taken anything to fix her mold-covered basement walls.

"You had my hopes up that I was finally not going to have to smell this because this odor goes through my house, and I'm told we don't have any funds," said Thurman.

As she suffered, some flood victims partied last September at a Sunday afternoon zoo picnic thrown by Cook County officials with federal tax money intended to help flood victims recover. Peter Laporte was also the middle man for that party, paying out nearly $80,000 for the catering, t-shirts, prizes, and trolley rides.

"This was called an in-and-out, or a pass-through. That's all this was set up to be," said Laporte.

The man who authorized the zoo bash, outgoing county board president Todd Stroger, presided over his final board meeting Wednesday and then talked about this controversial event first exposed by the I-Team.

"I don't believe it was a party. I believe what they used the funds for was to have an event to attract people to come out to do things, not only designed to help with the disaster itself, but to have them come out to see vendors that could help with other issues they may have," said Stroger.

Mike Elliott hasn't even been able to live in his house since contractors tore out the flood damage, then ran out of grant money before the repairs. Even his toilet is up on blocks.

"I'm in far worse shape than if I'd never done anything at all with Cook County," said Elliot.

The Cook County inspector general is now looking into whether $10 million in flood disaster money was properly spent by the Stroger administration.

Even the middle man Peter Laporte has a beef with Cook County. Laporte says the county hasn't yet paid his own fee and, with the flood program shut down, he'd like his money.

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