Tuesday, August 22, 2006

County clout boss ousted

County clout boss ousted
Copyright by The Chicago SunTimes
August 22, 2006

Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele asked the county's patronage chief Gerald Nichols to clean out his office just outside her own Friday because she could not figure out exactly what his official job was.

The Sun-Times on Monday reported county officials saying that for years Nichols called them to plug politically connected people both for policy positions -- which is allowed -- and also for lower-level jobs, which by court order are supposed to go to job applicants who score well on tests.

"I had a meeting with him Friday and removed him from his position," Steele said. "He explained to me that his role when he worked for President [John] Stroger was to sort his mail, prioritize invitations and to sometimes serve as a surrogate for the president. Well, I don't need him to do that."

"I asked him is there a job description someplace that I can look at the other things that he did for the president, and we were unable to verify a real job description," Steele said.

So Nichols has been kicked upstairs for the time being to work for the bureau of administration -- "until we could make a final decision as to where he should go if he should stay in his job at all," Steele said. He will continue to draw his $114,000-a-year paycheck from the county highway department where he has not worked for nearly 20 years.

Steele said her dispatching of Nichols on Friday was unrelated to a call she took the night before from the Sun-Times seeking her comment on a story about whistleblower county supervisor Eric Petraitis. Petraitis claims Nichols called him and told him to recommend a man active in Stroger's 8th Ward organization for a job for which the man was unqualified.

Steele may investigate claims

Steele said Monday she had just finished reading the Sun-Times' story and would be "reaching out" to see whether Petraitis' claims of pressure to rig job-test results were worth an investigation by her inspector general.

Even before she took office this month, at least three or four other commissioners suggested she move Nichols out of her office for reasons she did not specify.

Asked if Nichols was the patronage chief, Steele, who has members of her own family on the county payroll, said, "Well, he did a lot of things . . . constituent service . . . on many occasions take job requests I guess from whomever made 'em. Jobs are institutional in this city, as all of you know. When people elect you to office, they have some idea that you can access job opportunities for them. And it's true on the city side. It's true over here on the county side. Yes, I do believe Gerald did serve in that role. To what extent he took care of jobs, I don't know."

Commissioner Tony Peraica, the Republican candidate for Cook County Board president, who also has a relative on the county payroll, held a news conference Monday to urge that Nichols and highway department personnel chief William Krystiniak -- also accused by Petraitis of encouraging the rigging of test scores -- be put on administrative leave.

Steele said that would deny Nichols "due process."

Peraica also said that his rival, Democratic nominee Todd Stroger, John Stroger's son, had Nichols playing a major role in his election campaign. Peraica said Nichols and Todd Stroger had been together at political events over the past week.

Nichols assists Todd Stroger

Stroger's campaign spokesman said Nichols was only a friend of Todd Stroger, not a paid employee of the campaign. The younger Stroger also has relatives on the county payroll.

Commissioner Mike Quigley said the revelations of Nichols' uncertain job description are useful at a time when the county could face a budget deficit of $300 million.

"There has always been a black box of county hiring where good names go to die," Quigley said. "I'm hoping it will also draw attention to the county departments that have money to burn, so to speak, and help us draw the line."

Nichols and Krystiniak do not want to talk with the Sun-Times about Petraitis' allegations, said county spokeswoman Chinta Strausberg. But they have relayed to county officials that the allegations are false, and Nichols has indicated he and Petraitis have never gotten along, Strausberg said.



Daley administration: Robert Sorich, convicted of mail fraud this summer.

Blagojevich administration: Joseph Cini, reassigned this year to nonpersonnel duties.

Stroger administration: Gerald Nichols, moving to the county's bureau of administration.

Steele took over Aug. 8 as board president after Stroger's stroke.


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