Your latest Cook County scandal

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With Todd Stroger gone, where to look for the latest eyebrow-raising fiscal gamesmanship in Cook County? Look no further than Maria Pappas, the county treasurer who was once mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate.

CBS2 and the Better Government Association have taken Pappas to task for a series of creative employment arrangements that include having her former housekeeper and a $95,883-a-year driver-cum-project leader on staff.

The latest salvo includes disclosure of a $50,000 office makeover, which is reminiscent of Stroger’s much-criticized purchase of more than $13,000 of new furniture as he finished his term. The CBS/BGA report also said some of Pappas’s staff was forced to work at parties celebrating “various ethnic [holidays] and events,” which some former staffers said were campaign events designed to raise her profile in Chicago’s ethnic communities.

The report found Hazel Barr, a well-known social butterfly who has been planning events in the area for at least 35 years, is a designated Pappas party planner, earning more than $95,000 with the title of an assistant treasurer.

Perhaps Pappas, who denies any wrongdoing, was taking notes from Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown, whose bid for County Board president was sunk after widespread reports that she urged staffers to donate to her campaign funds, and evidence of spotty bookkeeping for the now-defunct Jeans Day fundraisers came to light.

In all, the CBS/BGA report identified more than $343,181 in what they call “questionable salaries” in the treasurer’s office. Cook County commissioners are pondering the 2011 budget, in which County Board President Toni Preckwinkle demanded 21 percent cuts across the board this month. The county is facing a $487 million budget deficit.

Pappas’s budget faces a 5 percent reduction. Most of those cuts are coming from salary; the budget calls for five job cuts, and continues the downward trajectory of the treasurer’s budget, which was nearly $10 million in 2007, about $6 million in 2009 and is recommended to be $5.2 million this year.

Pappas has agreed to conduct a desk audit, which would consider each employee’s qualifications and job title. Many county jobs are given out-of-date job titles, which do not match their current duties. The sheriff’s office, for instance, employs a number of elevator operators, whose jobs do not include pushing buttons, but rather staffing information kiosks at county buildings.

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