Watching the watchdog of Calumet City

2013-07-23T00:00:00Z 2013-07-23T12:10:06Z Watching the watchdog of Calumet CityAndrew Schroedter Better Government Association nwitimes.com

As Calumet City inspector general it was Edward Gonzalez’s job to root out municipal corruption, fraud and waste, and watch over employees, officials and vendors in the working-class south suburb.

But apparently no one was watching Gonzalez, a former State Police officer and Calumet City alderman who in November 2011 became the suburb’s first-ever inspector general, a full-time position that pays $79,417 a year and comes with a taxpayer-subsidized pension.

As inspector general, Gonzalez acknowledged that he never substantiated any complaints or launched a single “significant” investigation — even as the Better Government Association uncovered several abuses in the last year in Calumet City’s government.

And in an ironic twist he acknowledges he didn’t always work a full eight-hour day, in essence shortchanging taxpayers whose interests he was paid to protect.

“I’m not saying I didn’t sometimes go to lunch from 11:30 (a.m.) to 2 (p.m.),” he said. “But I didn’t disappear for days on end.”

Gonzalez, 58, retired June 30 amid questions from the BGA about his work as a watchdog, though he says it had nothing to do with his decision. “It was time for me to go,” he said. “I was ready to retire.”

Calumet City paid Gonzalez a total of more than $128,000 since November 2011. In addition, he collects a State Police pension of $96,948 a year, records show.

Gonzalez says he didn’t turn a blind eye to any fraud or waste during his tenure, or bow to political pressure and ignore such abuses. But he also didn’t aggressively search for misconduct, instead relying on tips from employees or residents to guide him. And those tips totaled only about a dozen since November 2011, he estimates.

Calumet City didn’t mention Gonzalez by name or list his phone number on its website, a possible reason for the lack of input from taxpayers and city workers. Gonzalez had another explanation: A dearth of significant corruption in Calumet City.

“There’s nothing criminal,” he said. “Maybe some bad policy, that’s it. But nobody is stealing or steering contracts.”

Gonzalez’s quarterly reports, submitted to Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush, read like copies of each other. “No significant activity to report,” they state.

Yet in the last year the BGA uncovered possible abuses involving Calumet City officials, most notably an accounting firm owned by the finance director being awarded a no-bid contract to investigate nearly $400,000 worth of missing credit card payments, and an alderman who was reimbursed for a hotel bill he paid with campaign funds.

Gonzalez was aware of both incidents but said he didn’t investigate because he felt it was a conflict of interest, as both matters directly or indirectly involved the City Council, which approved his appointment.

Gonzalez also said in last April’s election he supported Qualkinbush and her political slate, which included six incumbent aldermen, the treasurer and city clerk, raising questions about his impartiality.

The need for an independent watchdog is what led Dolton and other suburbs to recently ask Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to serve as inspector general for their communities.

Qualkinbush says Calumet City hasn’t decided if it will hire another full-time watchdog. She defended Gonzalez’s job performance, noting he conducted background checks on new employees in addition to “some internal investigations.”

“He did do stuff,” she said, though she was unable to explain why it wasn’t reflected in his quarterly reports.

“He’s retired now so I can’t ask him.”

As for his attendance, Qualkinbush said to her knowledge Gonzalez was either in the field or at City Hall, though he didn’t fill out time sheets and she didn’t track his every move. “I can’t watch everybody,” she said.

Gonzalez joined the State Police in the mid-1980s. He held various positions over the years, including trooper and detective, before retiring in 2010, he said.

He recently started collecting a second public-sector pension of $13,172 a year through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. The benefit is based on payments he received as Calumet City alderman for 12 years and inspector general for just under two years.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at (312) 821-9035 or aschroedter@bettergov.org.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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