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BGA: Iron fists needed to hold public funds

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Updated: June 15, 2013 6:34AM



Rita Crundwell’s betrayal of the public trust was staggering.

For years she served as Dixon’s comptroller. And for years, because she had almost sole control over town finances, she stole taxpayer money without detection.

In fact, nobody noticed until, on one of her vacations, a fill-in aide stumbled across numbers that didn’t add up.

When the missing funds were tallied, we gasped: Crundwell had embezzled roughly $53 million.

The betrayal and the amount of money are shocking, but not the financial chicanery itself, because fiscal controls and oversight are weak throughout local government in Illinois.

Case in point: Calumet City, a working-class community where the Better Government Association recently learned nearly $400,000 was missing from the town’s municipal coffers.

When we started asking questions, Cal City officials confirmed what we had heard but said it wasn’t a Dixon-type situation with embezzlement. It was, they said, an honest glitch of some sort, probably technical.

Either way, leaders in Cal City haven’t served taxpayers responsibly in this situation, the BGA has found.

For starters, they hired an accounting firm run by the city’s finance director, John Kasperek, to find out what happened. But the problem occurred on his watch as finance director. Why would his firm be tapped to investigate?

Kasperek’s investigation determined the unaccounted for amount — it came out to $378,100 — was collected by the Calumet City clerk’s office from 2008 to 2010, and involved fees for plumbing and building permits, animal licenses and utility bills.

The public made the payments with their credit cards, but the money never got into municipal accounts. Kasperek’s review found numerous credit card payments hadn’t been processed. The cards were swiped at the clerk’s office or credit card numbers entered on the suburb’s website. But the money wasn’t deducted from the payers’ accounts.

City officials say they suspect a technical glitch, though they acknowledge that financial controls in the clerk’s office were weak.

Kasperek was hired to investigate in July 2011, shortly after the money was discovered missing. Records show his firm has received $47,368 for the audit.

Kasperek already serves as Cal City’s finance director, overseeing the suburb’s financial operations on a consulting basis. His namesake accounting firm bills the city $110 an hour for Kasperek’s work, and it was paid about $120,000 last year for Kasperek’s work, city officials say.

Kasperek and his company have donated more than $34,000 over the years — most contributions pre-date the audit contract — to the campaign funds of local officials such as Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush and members of the city council who approved his firm’s hiring, according to interviews and data from state election officials.

Officials say the donations had nothing to do with the no-bid auditing contract his firm won. But legitimate questions can be raised about the ethical efficacy of elected officials accepting campaign cash from contractors they hire.

Meanwhile, Cal City recently recouped business license fees totaling a “few hundred dollars,” said Nyota Figgs, Cal City’s clerk since November 2011. But officials acknowledge that getting back the lion’s share of $378,100 will be challenging.

As painful as that is, let’s hope it’s a wake-up call to elected officials in Cal City, Dixon and other municipalities to take what happened seriously.

They should be revisiting and tightening their internal financial controls so there’s enough oversight and cross-checking to ensure that no more piles of taxpayer cash go missing.



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