By Shane Nicholson
ROCKFORD – A canceled re-election bid was supposed to stem the tide, but calls for Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen to step down are getting louder as an FBI probe into spending irregularities presses on.
Christiansen announced Sunday that he was suspending his campaign as rumors of a forthcoming indictment swirl. Now, Rock Valley College Chairman Frank Haney is left to run unopposed in the March 15 GOP primary.
But multiple county board members told The Times earlier in the weekend that anything short of a resignation would not be enough at this time, and a resolution seeking the chairman’s resignation is expected to hit the floor of the county boardroom for next week’s regular meeting.
Christiansen, chairman since 2004, has rebuked calls for his resignation so far, telling the Rockford Register Star on Monday that he has “done nothing wrong.”
Those assurances are falling on deaf ears, as a group of county board members are working to introduce a motion calling for a forensic audit of last year’s accounts, as well as two other years that are currently the focus of the FBI’s investigation.
A widening probe
The FBI has seized thousands of dollars of exercise and healthcare equipment housed at the county’s Public Safety Building as part of its investigation, including a $4,200 sauna that had previously been installed in Christiansen’s home which he said was for the treatment of health concerns.
Spending with vendors World’s Finest Chocolate – reimbursed by the chairman’s political campaign fund – and Kelley Williamson, as well as invoices from Northern Mechanical, Scandroli Construction and ADV/ANJ Landscaping, have come under the scope of the FBI review.
Former Purchasing Director Sally Claassen was placed on leave in August as a result of the ongoing investigation. She formally resigned her post on Sept. 11.
A review of county finances by Sheriff Gary Caruana’s office unveiled concerns in the administration’s spending. Those documents were turned over to the FBI, whose probe reportedly now extends back to the earliest days of Christiansen’s time as chairman.
Sources close to the investigation indicate that indictments in the case are forthcoming. One source told The Times last month that they expected action before the March primaries.
“There are fundamental changes that need to be made,” said board member John Guevara, R-19.
“We need an independent forensic audit. We need increased collaboration with the City of Rockford to fight crime. Residents of Winnebago County shouldn’t have to wait for us to move forward. I think the Chairman should step down so the board can get to work reforming Winnebago County.”
Board member Steve Schultz, R-3, agrees but says the problems run much deeper than simply the chairman.
“I think he’s done,” Schultz said Tuesday. “I think he should step down. He’s going to be under tremendous pressure to step down, and that’s necessary as part of a process to rebuild the public trust.
Schultz says that special interests continue to dominate the business of the county and that simply removing one chairman will fall far short of fixing entrenched problems in local government.
“We have systemic corruption. We have systemic influence from special interests that will not end with the current chairman,” he said.
“Scott’s just a cog in that wheel. The people who make the large campaign donations, they’re going to continue to, and they will continue to influence our local politics. It’s too little, too late as that relates to the chairman.”
Such systemic corruption is a concern of many on the county board and attempts to weed out potential illicit practices were the target of a Monday night Operations Committee meeting.
Proposals that would improve operational transparency were the focus, with John Sweeney, R-16, recommending that bids be placed online for review by residents.
Gary Jury, R-7, says that a new subcommittee to review purchasing policies and procedures will have real teeth in the fight to ensure a similar situation doesn’t happen again.
“We looked at the policies, me and (interim Purchasing Director) Roman Gray,” says Jury. “He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the policies, they just need to be tweaked.’ But they weren’t following those policies.”
Jury says that measures to introduce more transparency to the county’s operation are being looked at and have been made a top priority by the board.
“We’re going to completely redo that website, so people can see invoices, they can see the receipts.”
He feels that an added measure of public insight will put pressure on government officials to act with the best interests of the public in mind.
“What do you have to hide? I don’t care if you buy a pen, you put the receipt for the pen on the website. If it’s transparent – if the system is transparent – people aren’t going to buy stuff they shouldn’t.”
Schultz says these processes are something that have been looked at extensively but that focusing on this particular case could be dangerous if long-term goals for transparency are to be achieved.
“There is legitimacy to the steps they have taken to try to catch inappropriate behavior,” he said. “However, each one of our elected officials is effectively without accountability on certain issues.”
The simple matter of how employees are put into various positions is of concern to the board. Schultz worries that, due to the very nature of the county’s hiring processes, avoiding another situation which has seen Claassen made a scapegoat for the FBI probe could be unavoidable.
“From a practical standpoint, there’s no one that is above [the chairman] in the hierarchy, and the fact they make hiring and firing decisions for employees that are there to hold them accountable is a flaw in the system.”
“You had the fox watching the chicken coop,” says Jury. “People need to do their job not being afraid of a reaction from anybody.”
Schultz feels that reforms can’t go deep enough to weed out nepotism and corruption in county government. He warns that looking at only the largest examples could leave the door open for another such scandal to unfold.
“The efforts that have been made so far have been pointed at the most obvious gaping holes in our processes and procedures,” he said.
“Let’s say we get these spending reports that are provided to the public. First, who’s going to understand them? Second, they’re getting whatever someone decided to give them, and that is inadequate to understand what is going on behind the scenes.
“I think we should do as much as we can in bringing transparency from the process, listening to inside and outside auditors, improving our systems. All of those things are wise and prudent and necessary.”
Jury agrees, and he feels that the current county board has the proper setup to move forward with key reforms.
“We can have weekly reviews, monthly reviews, on purchasing, on everything. We never had that before.”
He says that steps which took power out of the hands of the chairman and allowing the caucuses to elect leadership positions has been a boon to the overall operations.
“These last two county boards are probably the best two that I’ve served on. It used to be a rubber stamp (from the chairman position); it’s not a rubber stamp now.”
Outside influences in county government have been a prevalent concern as the FBI’s investigation unfolded. Questions were asked of Christiansen’s campaign committee, Christiansen for Chairman, and its close working quarters within the daily operations of the county.
“We can’t have that sort of stuff going on anymore,” said Jury. “I can run my campaign out of an office outside my work on the board. Everyone should.”
Documents obtained by The Times last October showed that the chairman’s campaign had paid World’s Finest Chocolate nearly $2,400. Sources at the time said that the chairman explained the expense by his campaign committee as his effort to clean up a mess others had left behind.
But Schultz says the system is at least partially to blame for when such machinations are allowed to go on.
“When the people hired to keep these people in check – when the elected official they’re supposed to monitor has veto power over their job – then that’s a broken system,” he said.
“It’s not happening in every department and with every employee, but it happens.
“There’s all kinds of nepotism in the process, and it’s just accepted. It’s just routine.”
One county board member told The Times that they felt Claassen had been a political sacrifice in an attempt by the chairman to save face as the investigation unfolded.
“I’m not saying what she did was right,” the board member said, “but there’s more to it than just what she did.”
Schultz feels allowing individuals to distract from the overall problem is a dangerous precedent to set at a time when many residents hope to wipe the slate clean and see the county government become a more open body.
“The chairman is connected to special interests that have influenced how he has led,” Schultz added. “At this stage in the process, people are just jumping on board the bandwagon. Politically he’s in trouble, so it’s the popular thing to do.”
Jury and Guevara both feel that the proposed forensic audit could go a long way to revealing just how those sort of relationships were allowed to permeate the workings of the county government.
“We’ve got to explore it cost-wise,” Jury said about the plans. “But it’s something we’re serious about, something we need to look at doing.”
But Schultz still worries that focusing solely on the failings of one chairman could allow such behavior to easily creep back into the board.
“I find that disingenuous in the larger context of the picture,” he said. “My concern is that the focus is on one individual, when the problem is systemic.
“What we really need is a cultural change, and I don’t see that happening.”
Illustration, Derek Droessler