Cook County Land Bank Authority to hire lawyer for beleaguered county agency

The move comes as an outside review by a former judge, Patricia Brown Holmes, wrapped up, and the agency hires its third leader since June 2021.

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Patricia Brown Holmes addresses the board of the Cook County Land Bank Authority on Thursday.

Patricia Brown Holmes addresses the board of the Cook County Land Bank Authority on Thursday.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Days after a former Cook County Land Bank Authority employee was charged in an ongoing federal investigation with scamming the beleaguered county agency on property deals, officials there said Thursday they will hire a staff lawyer.

The decision to hire a senior legal counsel to deal with ethical concerns and other matters comes at the recommendation of Patricia Brown Holmes, a former Cook County judge.

She was hired in April to review the agency following a series of reports by the Chicago Sun-Times on insider deals and other issues involving the land bank, which was established in 2014 to promote the redevelopment of long-vacant properties.

“We think if you have someone in that general counsel role, that will then focus on these trainings and focus on understanding, be a resource for asking questions — that will help significantly,” Holmes told the agency’s board, which is headed by Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer.

The new job will pay $129,402 to $158,158 a year. The opening has been posted. 

Holmes’ law firm — Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila — has billed the land bank $115,100 for work from April through the end of September. Gainer said that’s the total tab for the firm’s investigation.

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who chairs the Cook County Land Bank Authority.

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer (right), who chairs the Cook County Land Bank Authority.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Holmes said she’ll provide her final report in January in which she’ll detail her findings and recommendations.

The full scope of the investigation isn’t clear. But the firm’s lawyers — who billed the land bank as much as $600 an hour — didn’t interview Robert Rose, the agency’s longtime executive director, who left in June 2021, or any other former staff members.

Earlier this week, Mustafaa Saleh, 36, who was an asset manager for the land bank, was charged by federal prosecutors with wire fraud, accused of hiding his ownership in businesses that made money buying and selling properties it obtained from the agency. Prosecutors said Saleh also hid his ownership in a property-maintenance business that was paid more than a $1 million by the land bank.

Also Thursday, the land bank board confirmed Jessica Caffrey, a longtime aide to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, to run the agency. Hired at a salary of $176,983 a year, she is the third person to oversee the land bank since June 2021.

Jessica Caffrey, the new executive director of the Cook County Land Bank Authority.

Jessica Caffrey, the new executive director of the Cook County Land Bank Authority.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Caffrey, who has worked for Preckwinkle for a decade, left a $128,377-a-year job as the Cook County Board president’s director of real estate in the office of capital planning and policy. She previously worked for the Chicago Housing Authority.

The land bank has faced growing scrutiny since the Sun-Times, in the first in a series of stories on its dealings, reported in 2019 on an insider property deal involving Chester Wilson, chief of staff to Ald. Carrie Austin (34th).

Preckwinkle ordered a review of the land bank’s procedures “to evaluate its handling” of that property “and to provide recommendations to ensure future transactions are not in question.”

That $145,000 audit by the accounting firm RSM did a spot check of land bank transactions in 2019 and found that agency officials hadn’t documented any steps taken to avoid conflicts of interest.

Separately, then-Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard opened his own investigation around the same time and also criticized the agency for poor record-keeping.

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