Reporting Pam Zekman
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CHICAGO (CBS) — You could call it a family affair: A Cook County government official helps oversee the work of a company that employs his relatives.
Does that sound right to you? The Better Government Association and CBS 2′s Pam Zekman didn’t think so. They found it raises questions about a possible waste of taxpayer money and ethical issues that could reach up to the county board president.
Air conditioning and heating systems in large county buildings require regular maintenance and repair performed by private contractors. Anchor Mechanical Engineering is one of them.
County records show that since 2008, Anchor has been paid more than $13.5 million for work it has bid on.
“The contracts are for repairing heating and cooling units,” says Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association. “But if I’m a taxpayer of Cook County I’m thinking maybe this isn’t so cool. Maybe I should be heated up over these deals.”
Why? Because a county official who has a role in approving the work and payments made to Anchor has two relatives who work for the company owner.
The county employee, Patrick Nolan, is a $107,432-a-year operating engineer and has been with the county since July 2008.
Amy Nolan, his sister-in-law, works at Anchor.
His brother, Dennis Nolan, works for another company, Exclusive Construction Services, owned by the owner of Anchor.
“It feels like a conflict,” Shaw says. “It feels unfair. It feels like the doors are open to steering and engineering things.”
County officials confirm Patrick Nolan’s job includes helping to shape bid specifications.
And records show Anchor employees e-mailing Nolan for approval on invoices. And Nolan is listed as their contact for jobs.
After a BGA inquiry, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle referred the matter to her Board of Ethics to investigate.
“It doesn’t ring right to us,” Preckwinkle says.
A month later records show that Preckwinkle got a $10,000 contribution from the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 399.
Anchor employs members of local 399 and Patrick Nolan’s father is the retired chair of the union’s Political Education Fund. He still consults on some donation decisions, according to the union president.
“If this is serious enough to refer to the Cook County Board of Ethics she probably shouldn’t be taking campaign cash from people involved in this,” Shaw says.
Preckwinkle responded: “I have throughout my political career gotten support from a variety of unions. But that does not preclude us from taking appropriate action when we have questions about the conduct of an employee.”
The union contributed $16,000 to Preckwinkle in 2010, and it also contributed to her predecessor.
Brian Hickey, the President of local 399, says the $10,000 contribution this year was for a Preckwinkle fundraising dinner and the timing was “just a coincidence.”
Hickey said the local makes contributions to officials of government agencies that have local 399 members employed.
“If they help us, we try to help them,” he said.
Patrick Nolan had no comment for this story.
Michael Rosner, who operates Anchor and Exclusive, says his employment of the two Nolans has nothing to do with his company getting county work. He said the contracts are competitively bid and Anchor was the low bidder.
As for getting work and invoices approved, Rosner said, “There are many layers in the county system for review, not just Nolan.”
And Rosner says the county owes him money for work that Anchor did and was not paid for. In defense of a pending lawsuit filed by Anchor, the Cook County States Attorneys office says Anchor submitted some invoices for work that was not performed, or that Anchor failed to “fully perform” as required by the contract.
A county spokeswoman says Preckwinkle has also asked the Board of Ethics for a “more expansive investigation.”
She said the board has been asked to determine not only if current ethics rules have been violated but also whether it’s appropriate for Nolan to participate in contract management for Anchor and to make “general recommendations for improving and strengthening the ethics code.”