Dozens of Cook County employees out after PPP fraud probe, Walmart closings fallout and more in your Chicago news roundup

Today’s update is about an eight-minute read that will brief you on the day’s biggest stories.

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The Daley Center, where the clerk of court’s office and other Cook County government agencies are housed.

Sun-Times file

Good afternoon. Here’s the latest news you need to know in Chicago. It’s about an eight-minute read that will brief you on today’s biggest stories.

— Matt Moore (@MattKenMoore)

Weather 🌨️

This afternoon will see scattered rain and snow showers with a high near 39 degrees and gusts as high as 40 mph. Expect similar weather tonight with a low near 32. Tomorrow will be sunny with a high near 55 degrees.

Top story

Dozens of Cook County employees resign or are fired in clerk of court, county inspector general’s PPP fraud probe

Dozens of Cook County employees have resigned or been fired in ongoing investigations of fraud in COVID-19 relief programs.

Forty-eight employees of Cook County Clerk of Court Iris Martinez “no longer work” for the office after they were found to have defrauded the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which 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.

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

Martinez said Friday that she understands the need for public trust in her office and that “I am personally offended that individuals in my office that took advantage of the PPP loan program. I cannot stand by any employee who provided false or altered information to these banking institutions for their own personal gain at the expense of taxpayers. These individuals undermined a government program designed to save American businesses.”

The written statement from Martinez’s office didn’t say how many of the employees who’ve left her office were fired or how many resigned.

Also Friday, interim Cook County Inspector General Steven Cyranoski released a quarterly report in which he said he found six employees of other county agencies had 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, the report said. Three county 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.

Our Frank Main has more on the PPP fraud probe.

More news you need

The Walmart closings


Empty shelves remain at the Walmart Supercenter in Chatham yesterday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The shadow of Walmart’s logo and name hung above the Chatham Supercenter location yesterday, its last day of operation, as dozens of shoppers streamed in to shop among increasingly empty shelves.

Less than a week ago, the company announced it would close its store along with others in Little Village, Kenwood and Lakeview, saying they were “losing tens of millions” annually and that losses had doubled in the last five years. The company also noted the $70 million it spent in recent years creating health care facilities at its city stores and the Walmart Academy training center, which were also set to close.

Myesha McGarner, a 30-year-old South Shore resident and regular shopper at the Chatham location, said she hadn’t realized it was closing until she entered to find empty shelves and a “ghostly” atmosphere. She called the company’s explanation a “cop-out” and “infuriating,” and said she thought the closures had more to do with the area’s history of disinvestment.

“Neighborhoods that are impoverished and underserved continue to have things close down that they need to be better,” McGarner said. “Another store closing down on the South Side. What else is new? They’re always taking stuff from the South Side.”

Community group My Block My Hood My City was distributing $33,000 worth of food and meals — enough for about 4,000 people — according to the group’s founder, Jahmal Cole. The nonprofit already provides 50 boxes of food to elderly city residents weekly, though it plans to increase that number to 250 and hold similar “feed the people rally” events monthly. Our Violet Miller details the Chatham closure.

On Friday, about a dozen people gathered outside the Walmart in Little Village to speak out against the company for closing its store there.

“This Walmart is for us,” said Baltazar Enriquez, president of the Little Village Community Council. “We fought to have this here. Since we are a low-income area, we depend on their low prices. We need these low prices because we don’t make enough money.” Our Kaitlin Washburn has more reaction from Little Village community members.

And WBEZ’s Natalie Moore and Clare Lane take a look back at how hard Walmart fought to open the stores it has now closed on the South and West Sides.

A bright one ☀️

Renowned violinist urges Chicago art students to let music color their work

When Hilary Hahn tucks her violin under her chin and raises her bow as a soloist on stages the world over, all eyes are on her — the workaday world and everything else forgotten.

As her musical notes fluttered around a classroom in the Humboldt Park neighborhood last Tuesday, almost none of the 30 or so people there was looking at Hahn. Most of them were staring at the floor. One young woman, wearing a black hoodie and a COVID-19 mask, had her back to Hahn for almost the entire 1 1/2-hour performance. And Hahn was absolutely fine with that.

Hahn, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s artist-in-residence, made a stop at the Chicago High School for the Arts last Tuesday, dropping in on a class of art students. She played a dazzling rendition of Pablo de Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy,” among the better-known pieces. But it wasn’t a performance, so much as a collaboration or — “just a big experiment,” as she called it.


Violinist Hilary Hahn, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s artist-in-residence, performs last Tuesday as Victoria Toledo, 16, a junior, and more than a dozen other students create art to the sound of Hahn’s music in a classroom at The Chicago High School for the Arts in Humboldt Park.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Art of all kinds is about emotions and is about connecting with others,” Hahn said before things got underway. “So I want to see if there is common ground we can find, where I play, and they feel, and they do art about what they feel [from the music].”

So as her bow twitched and danced, the only other sound in the room came from the scrape of charcoal pencil and a rainbow’s palette of pastel crayons. Students were laying and sitting cross-legged on the floor. Several of them didn’t know who Hahn is — beyond being a professional violinist. At the end, Hahn declared herself delighted with the experiment, urging the students to let music color their work however they can.

“Just hum to yourself as you draw,” she said. “You can listen to a favorite radio station. You can listen to the sounds outside, a jazz band.”

Stefano Esposito has more on Hahn and last week’s performance.

From the press box

Your daily question☕

What do you think is the best way to support young people in this city?

Email us (please include your first and last name) and we might include your answer in the next Afternoon Edition.

On Friday, we asked you: What’s a business that you would say best represents the vibe of your neighborhood?

Here’s some of what you said…

“Lily’s Record Shop in Humboldt Park. You can get just about anything from Puerto Rico.” — Nestor Solis

“Charmers Cafe best represents the neighborhood! It has a total beach vibe. In Rogers Park, there is no Lake Shore Drive so you can bike right over to the beach. Charmers is at the head of that block of Jarvis that is blocked off. Tables are in the street and sidewalk. It feels like you’re on vacation. I recommend their veg head sandwich and chai tea with oat milk!” — Katherine Czerwinski

“Electric Movement in Old Town. Electric bikes and scooters are exactly what the city/state needs.” — Ellen Rosenfeld

“The tamale vendors here in Pilsen.” — Guy Matheson

“The heart of Lincoln Square is Gene’s Sausage Shop. Part meat market, part rooftop beer garden, and one of the last vestiges of LS’s old world vibes.” — Joce Clark

Thanks for reading the Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition. Got a story you think we missed? Email us here.

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