Cook County Land Bank Authority needs to take steps to avoid conflicts, auditors find

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle ordered the review following a Sun-Times report on an insider deal involving Ald. Carrie Austin’s chief of staff Chester Wilson.

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An outside audit was ordered of the Cook County Land Bank Authority as the result of an insider deal involving Chester Wilson (center, yellow tie), chief of staff to Ald. Carrie Austin (center, front).

An outside audit was ordered of the Cook County Land Bank Authority as the result of an insider deal involving Chester Wilson (center, yellow tie), chief of staff to Ald. Carrie Austin (center, front).

Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

An audit by an outside accounting firm released Friday found that Cook County Land Bank Authority officials haven’t documented what they’ve done to avoid conflicts of interest on land deals involving the county agency.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle ordered the examination by the firm RSM after the Chicago Sun-Times reported last fall that the land bank accepted the donation of a dilapidated building owned by Chester Wilson, chief of staff to Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), wiped out more than $200,000 that Wilson owed in back property taxes, then sold the building to a Wilson business partner.

Robert Rose Jr., the county agency’s executive director, responded at the time to the newspaper’s findings by calling the Wilson deal an “absolute aberration” that never should have been allowed to happen but declined to rescind it.

In a 17-page report that focused on whether the agency follows its own policies and procedures, the auditors said the land bank needs to take steps to avoid similar conflicts.

The firm, which is being paid $145,000 for the audit, said the land bank needs to document its research of potential buyers of properties the agency has seized or purchased and to create an objective system for determining who to choose when there are multiple bidders.

Though the auditors looked only at land bank transactions that occurred between June and November 2019, the issue of how to decide among multiple bidders had come up in October 2018, when the land bank sold a home in Oak Lawn to one of its own staffers even though it had two other offers.

Rose fired that staff member, Natasha Cornog, his own assistant, last February after the Sun-Times found she’d gotten homestead property tax exemptions on that property and two others. State law allows homeowners to take only one such tax break.

The auditors also took note of a “lack of documentation over award decisions,” which they said “could be seen by the public as a significant process which lacks transparency and thus accountability.”

Since 2014, the land bank has bought or seized and then sold about 1,000 vacant properties, largely in economically distressed neighborhoods, to buyers who agree to rehabilitate them.

At a land bank authority meeting Friday, Rose characterized the findings as “the growing pains of going from a small organization to a large organization. But the integrity and the work that we do, I feel vindicated in this report in terms of what it says about that.”

Preckwinkle said, “I am confident that the land bank will put procedures in place to quickly address the audit’s findings and recommendations.”

The land bank still faces a broader inquiry by the Cook County inspector general’s office, also prompted by the Sun-Times report on Wilson’s dealings.

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