Political Unrest

Layoffs spur calls for a state audit, subponeas, records
2010-05-19T00:00:00Z Political UnrestBy Olga Briseño - olga.briseno@nwi.com, (219) 933-3396 nwitimes.com

EAST CHICAGO | A day after the City Council voted to subpoena three top city officials, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller again pressed for a top-to-bottom financial audit of indicted Mayor George Pabey's administration.

"As attorney general, I rarely work with city councils," Zoeller, a Republican, said May 11 "(But) the people of East Chicago deserve more understanding of how their money is being spent."

Zoeller, who first advocated the audit May 7 after a meeting with four City Council members, said he soon will ask the State Board of Accounts to expedite its annual audit of the city.

Pabey spokesman Damian Rico declined comment, saying the mayor continues to assert "the council has the right to request any document, and we are not going to impede on any of their requests."

City Council President Richard Medina, D-at large, was one of four council members who voted against the ordinance Monday to strip the Board of Public Works' fiscal powers.

"(Zoeller) doesn't need to request an audit; we get one every year," Medina said. "I believe the city is doing a very good job."

Medina, who has been on the council for 10 years said that the practice of claims going to Public Works has been in place before Pabey was mayor and works well.

In the wake of recent layoffs that hit three council members, the council voted 5-4 on Monday to usurp control of bill-paying and invoice-reviewing duties held by the Board of Public Works, which is controlled by Pabey appointees. The council handles those duties in most Indiana cities.

Pabey, who faces federal embezzlement charges, vetoed a similar ordinance earlier this year. But the five council members, pointing to a contract worth as much as $260,000 a year offered to Corporation Counsel Carmen Fernandez, hope to limit the mayor's fiscal powers. A few days later, the Board reduced the Fernandez contract to $85,000. The council also voted 7-2 on May 10 to subpoena Fernandez, City Controller Charles Pacurar and Human Resources Director Francisco Rosado Jr.

At issue is the council majority's desire to wrest control of the fiscal powers held by the Public Works -- an appointed three-member panel that includes former City Council Attorney Joseph Allegretti. He was fired by the council last month.

Medina said later that the board members "are not criminals and do not want to commit any crimes." He referenced all the recent issues by certain members of the council as "clouding the issues" in the city.

Medina, who is assistant police chief, said he is more concerned about preventing layoffs in his department because "we are at a bare minimum."

As an overflow crowd at the May 10 City Council incensed by recent city layoffs looked on from outside the council chambers, Councilman Adrian Santos, D-1st, introduced the resolution to take those powers away from the Board of Public Works and give them to the council. He said the Pabey administration is keeping the council -- and taxpayers -- in the dark.

"I learned last week about contracts the public works are giving, and I think it is sickening. Some people this last week lost jobs. These are hard times for our residents, rough economic times for everyone and I cannot understand them approving (overly generous) contracts," Santos said. "We are the checks and balances, and we can look at these contracts. Does she deserve that contract? No!"

Pointing to longtime Mayor Robert Pastrick's last days in office, Zoeller said he wants state auditors to infiltrate the city now -- before it's too late to unearth or reverse any potential malfeasance.

Pabey, who defeated Pastrick in 2004, was federally indicted in February and faces trial this summer. The mayor is accused of having city employees do work on a home he and his daughter own in Gary while the workers were on city time.

A state audit helped spur the federal investigation of the 1999 sidewalks-for-votes scandal, in which three East Chicago councilmen and a trio of top administrators were convicted of illegally spending $24 million in public money on driveways, sidewalks, patios and tree trimming for city voters.

The state attorney general's office followed with a civil racketeering lawsuit that recently culminated in a $108 million judgment against Pastrick and two former East Chicago politicos.

Emotions ran high Monday, as Allegretti tossed Santos an envelope containing employees records the councilman had requested for some time. As he walked away, Allegretti said, "Aren't you going to thank me?"

On Friday, May 7, Councilman Jimmy Ventura, his son and a relative of Councilman Adrian Santos were given pink slips from their city jobs. And some insiders, saying the latest firings appear to be political retaliation, are seeking support from the attorney general.

Early Friday afternoon, four council members -- Juda Parks, Ventura, Maldonado and Santos -- met in a back room of a restaurant on Indianapolis Boulevard with Zoeller.

About the casino funds, Rico said it has been a priority for the mayor's office.

"From Day One, the Pabey administration has been resiliently fighting to return casino funds to the city for its economic betterment with very little help from the attorney general's office," he said. "Economic development in the city will undeniably broaden the tax base and thereby reduce the unsupportable tax burden on homeowners. It will create jobs. It will enhance the quality of life here. In general, it will transform the city and the life of its citizens," Rico's statement adds.

The rift between some councilmen and Pabey surfaced last year when Santos and Maldonado opposed the mayor's 2010 city budget, which called for pay cuts for police officers and firefighters.

At least four councilmen -- Maldonado, Santos, Orange and at-large member Juda Parks -- had sided against Pabey in February and with Zoeller on the controversial proposed settlement with Second Century, the private company that has received millions of dollars from the city's lakefront casino.

THE FIRINGS :

April 14: Councilman Adrian Santos fired from his job as a code enforcement inspector

April 29 : Councilwoman Myrna Maldonado fired from her job as associate director of youth services at the E.C. Library

Friday: Councilman Jimmy Ventura fired as assistant parks director

Friday: Damien Ventura fired from a 12-year job with street department

Friday: A relative of Councilman Adrian Santos fired from street department

Friday: Armando Gomez fired after 22 years in photography and graphics

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