PPP fraud probe results in 6 Chicago Park District employees resigning, 5 facing discipline

Separately, City Hall Inspector General Deborah Witzburg’s investigation of COVID relief Paycheck Protection Program fraud “is a large-scale undertaking,” could lead to charges.

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A Chicago Park District rescue boat.

The Chicago Park District is the latest local government agency caught up in investigations of COVID-19 relief fraud.

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Add the Chicago Park District to the list of government agencies with employees accused of defrauding federal COVID-19 relief programs.

In a new report, the park district’s internal investigators say they dug into more than two dozen cases in an ongoing probe that’s prompted six employees to resign, with five other workers also facing discipline.

Deborah Witzburg, City Hall’s inspector general, said Wednesday her office is separately investigating whether any of the city’s roughly 30,000 employees have committed similar fraud involving the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP law was enacted to provide forgivable loans to help struggling businesses stay in business in 2020 and 2021 during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic.

Government employees also have been fired, forced to resign or faced other disciplinary action after being linked to PPP fraud at agencies including the office of Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans, the Cook County Board of Review, the Cook County assessor’s office and the clerk of the county’s circuit court system.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Sunday that 48 employees of Cook County Clerk of Court Iris Martinez “no longer work” for the office after they were found to have defrauded the PPP program.

At the park district, investigators have looked into 26 current or seasonal employees who got PPP loans for “purported secondary, private businesses,” according to the new report from the agency’s interim inspector general, Alison Perona.

“Falsifying a loan document calls into question an employee’s character, honesty and fitness to serve as a park district employee,” Perona said in a written statement. “People who have defrauded the government and the citizens should not be employed by government agencies.”

Perona declined to say whether any of the cases her office uncovered have been referred for possible criminal investigation.

Her investigation began after an anonymous complaint to the inspector general’s hotline. The report detailed the 26 cases that have been investigated, offering these details:

  • Two employees quit the park district after they “admitted filing for and obtaining PPP loans” but not providing investigators with any “documentation to validate their loans or businesses.”
  • Four workers resigned after the inspector general called them to come in for questioning.
  • Disciplinary hearings are scheduled for four employees who “acknowledged that they filed for and received PPP loans and admitted that they did not own or operate any outside businesses.”
  • Also facing a disciplinary hearing is an employee who said she got a loan she was going to use to start a business but “had not yet done so.” She took a leave of absence after the inspector general’s third request for paperwork to back up her story.
  • Six employees showed proof they had businesses that received the PPP funds, but they had not received the required permission from the park district to have those side gigs. They were reprimanded.
  • And nine seasonal employees not currently on the payroll didn’t respond to the inspector general and would face further investigation if they reapply to work for the park district.

Perona said the six workers who resigned are now on the district’s “do not rehire” list.

Parks officials said they were “extremely disturbed to learn that some employees falsified documents” to get PPP money.

“The conduct of employees outlined in the Office of Inspector General report is unconscionable and completely unacceptable,” they said in a written statement. “This goes against the very trust that residents place upon public service employees.”

The park district’s leadership changed and sweeping reforms were promised in 2021, after WBEZ reported on widespread sexual abuse, assault and harassment involving lifeguards at Chicago’s beaches and city pools.

Parks officials said Wednesday, “Over the past year, the district has worked hard to set a higher standard for ethical behavior for its workforce.”

Nationally, most of the loans in the federal Small Business Administration’s fraud-plagued PPP program were forgiven, meaning the businesses’ owners didn’t have to pay back any of the money they got.

Witzburg said her office is investigating complaints from tipsters and doing its own “proactive analysis” of the city payroll to ferret out fraud.

“It is a large-scale undertaking,” said Witzburg, who wouldn’t discuss what her office has found but said the investigation could lead to disciplinary action or criminal charges.

Last week, interim Cook County Inspector General Steven Cyranoski said he found six employees of other county agencies defrauded federal relief programs, too. One employee of the Cook County Board of Review and one in Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office have been fired this year, his report said. Three employees — in facilities management, the public defender’s office and the Cook County Board’s secretary to the board office — have resigned this year. Disciplinary action is pending in a sixth case, involving a county comptroller’s office employee, the report said.

Sources have told the Sun-Times at least three supervisors in the Cook County chief judge’s office were forced out recently after fraud accusations against them were “sustained” by an investigation, which a spokeswoman said is ongoing.

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