Watchdog says waste, alleged hiring scheme plagued mosquito abatement board, calls on members to resign
The Cook County’s Office of the Independent Inspector General concluded that all the members of the board of the South Cook County Mosquito Abatement District shouldn’t have their appointments renewed.
A report by the Cook County watchdog found that well-connected members of a taxpayer-funded mosquito abatement district engaged in an alleged hiring scheme that constituted a clear conflict of interest.
The report by Cook County’s Office of the Independent Inspector General dated Jan. 14 concluded that all the members of the board of trustees of the South Cook County Mosquito Abatement District shouldn’t have their appointments renewed and should be advised to “explore their voluntary resignation in the interests of the district.”
The independent inspector general also called for the resignation of Janet Rogers, who is at the heart of the alleged hiring scheme.
Rogers was pardoned by former Gov. Pat Quinn in 2013 after being convicted of felony counts of theft and state benefits fraud nearly a decade earlier. Before that, Secret Service agents raided her home in Harvey in 2000 as part of a counterfeiting investigation, though she was never charged.
Her name, like the others accused of wrongdoing, wasn’t included in the report, but the Sun-Times was able to confirm their identities.
The trustees were all appointed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle with the advice and consent of the Cook County Board.
The recommendations are rare for Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s office.
In an interview, Blanchard said he would have recommended Preckwinkle remove them from office, but she does not have the authority to oust them because the mosquito abatement district is an independent body funded by a dedicated tax.
“While there is no statutory mechanism for the office of the president to fire a sitting trustee, President Preckwinkle will not be seeking the reappointment of the members in question,” a spokesman for Preckwinkle said.
In a letter to trustees, Preckwinkle advised trustees to “take immediate corrective action to remedy the [inspector general’s] findings.”
Investigators also found the district had failed to do its most basic work. According to the report, it inadequately conducted mosquito surveillance, underspent on insecticides and failed to cooperate with the Illinois Department of Public Health. The report urged the district to bolster public reporting, coordinate with other mosquito abatement districts and cooperate with state officials.
The South Cook County district covers 340 square miles and is the largest of four mosquito abatement districts in the county. The South Cook County district’s mission is to monitor and reduce mosquitoes and other biting insects south of 87th Street. Its operating budget for fiscal year 2021-22 is $4.5 million.
Appointments, hirings, promotions
During two board meetings in February 2017, Trustee Charles Givines, a former Harvey alderman, moved to consider hiring Rogers, who sits on the board of trustees at South Suburban College in South Holland and is the board president of Harvey School District 152. There was no second to his motions at either meeting, the report states.
Lynette Stokes, who at the time was a vice president at South Suburban College, then showed up at three board meetings that year before being appointed a trustee in November 2017, according to the report. She was sworn in the next month.
Three days after Stokes was installed, the board held a special meeting and approved a resolution to hire Rogers in a public relations position with a $42,000 salary and “full benefits,” according to the report. Stokes, Givines and another trustee approved the resolution.
Both Givines and Stokes ultimately “experienced positive employment developments at the hands of boards” Rogers sat on, according to the report.
Givines, who also serves on the board of Dolton West School District 148, was hired as a consultant for custodial support for the Harvey school district, and Rogers voted to approve the appointment in November 2017, the report states.
Rogers’ husband, Harvey Ald. Tyrone Rogers, also sat on the school board at the time and introduced the motion, according to the report. He is facing trial in Cook County on charges of sexual abuse and sexual assault stemming from an alleged attack at Harvey City Hall.
When Janet Rogers was convicted in 2004 of falsifying her income to get a better financial aid package for her son’s college education, she was sentenced to 180 days in jail, fined $7,000 and ordered to pay back more than $10,000 to the state and federal governments. She also voluntarily stepped down from the same school board.
Then in 2011, Janet Rogers was elected again to the school board and later appointed president. That drew the ire of then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose office had prosecuted Janet Rogers and later asked a judge in 2013 to boot her from the board for “unlawfully holding and executing the office of a board member.”
Before the judge could make a decision, though, Quinn granted her clemency and wiped clean her felony convictions.
In an interview with investigators, Janet Rogers confirmed she also voted to approve Stokes’ appointment as president of South Suburban College in April 2018, according to the report. The promotion from vice president of academic services raised Stokes’ annual salary from $134,629 to $194,021.
Before being appointed to the mosquito abatement district board, Stokes submitted an affidavit to county officials denying she had any conflicts of interest that would prevent her from “adequately representing the interests” of the board. She also affirmed that she would report any changes, according to the report.
Given the circumstances, investigators found the actions of both Givines and Janet Rogers presented a conflict of interest and a breach of fiduciary duty, the report states. Stokes’ “breach of duty” was “exacerbated” by her sworn statements in the affidavit.
Reached by phone, Givines said he hadn’t reviewed the report’s findings before slamming the “nameless, faceless people” who authored it and offering a full-throated defense of the board’s work.
“We’re an independent organization, and we did nothing wrong except take care of our business,” Givines said, adding, “You guys never give Black people any kind of break. You want to write all this bad stuff about us. Come out and look and then write.”
Both Janet Rogers and Stokes, who also said she hadn’t read the report, referred the Sun-Times to Joe Miller, a board-appointed attorney who contested the report’s findings in an interview. Miller said he intends to respond within the 45-day window allotted by county officials, insisting there was no insidious scheme at play that constituted a conflict of interest.
“The idea that there was this hiring scheme is inaccurate. It’s wrong. It’s just flat wrong,” said Miller, claiming the timeline for certain appointments was “off” and noting that Stokes was picked by the county board.
“There’s actually quite a lot of things that I think are inaccurate in how they put it in the report,” he added, pointing to the section on vehicle sales, as well as certain information on other mosquito abatement districts and the stated qualifications of “specific people.” He didn’t offer any clarification to the Sun-Times.
Several people interviewed by investigators also raised alarms about hiring Janet Rogers, who was first placed in an executive position and later installed as an operations manager “despite having no background in science or entomology,” according to the report. Her online biography on the South Suburban College website showed she worked as a culinary arts and special education teacher for three decades.
In an interview, the report said, Janet Rogers was unable to answer questions about mosquito control operations or insecticide use, and she admitted that a biologist and chemist handled most of the operations.
In contrast, the county’s three other mosquito abatement district managers had “extensive education or experience in mosquito control” before being picked, according to the report. An employee at the Illinois Department of Public Health expressed concern that far more qualified candidates were overlooked.
“I don’t know what she’s doing there,” the employee is quoted as saying in the report. “She is not qualified for the position.”
Stipends, vehicle sales
Investigators also called into question a $100 travel stipend board members paid themselves to attend monthly meetings. Between January 2017 and June 2021, those expenses totaled $22,800, according to the report.
Investigators found those payments were “unsupported by records” and were “clearly excessive if they were to reimburse for mileage.”
The report also questioned the SCCMAD’s practice of selling vehicles for far less than their value. Between January 2017 and March 2021, the abatement district sold 15 vehicles to south suburban municipalities for just $1 each.
Both the payments and the sales were deemed a breach of fiduciary duty, according to the report, which recommended ending those practices and called on trustees to repay all money “wrongfully paid to them.”
Asked if he planned to refer any of his findings to the law enforcement agencies, including the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Blanchard responded: “No comment.”