GARY — Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is not the first elected official looking to Pastor Curtis Whittaker Sr. for financial salvation.
The mayor recently terminated the city controller's consulting contract and fired the deputy controller over misuse of $8 million in Emergency Management Services funds.
She then turned to Whittaker, a public accountant and pastor of the Progressive Community Church in Gary’s Emerson neighborhood, to investigate the controversial misuse of funds earmarked for public safety.
It's not the first time Whittaker has provided accounting work for government agencies steeped in controversy.
Earlier this year, the mayor asked Whittaker's accounting firm to get to the bottom of scandal revolving around City Hall's financial department cutting checks to pay for salaries, maintenance of the Genesis Convention Center and demolition of blighted homes from a fund that should have been restricted only to emergency medical services.
Whittaker has built up a reputation as a politically connected consultant since 2001 when he started his accounting firm, Whittaker and Co. PLLC, with offices in Gary and Chicago.
Among other entities, Whittaker's firm provided accounting services to the troubled administration of former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin. Elgin ultimately was convicted of felony public corruption charges for shaking down employees for political donations.
Whittaker wasn't accused of any wrongdoing in the Elgin case. He said, "I did a lot of great work for that office, reducing their tax rate. I was not a party to whatever else she did."
In addition to being licensed by the state of Indiana, Whittaker's business website states his credentials include membership in the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants; Indiana CPA Society; National Association of Black Accountants and Illinois CPA Society. His firm has been certified as a minority-owned business entity in Indiana and Illinois.
His entry into controversy has been questioned by some of the mayor's critics.
Gary City Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade and Jim Nowacki, a political activist who has run for mayor and Calumet Township assessor, are calling for another, more independent investigation.
"I'm not saying Whittaker and Co. isn't capable of providing an accurate accounting, and I agree with the mayor we want to support local businesses," Nowacki said.
"But I would be more confident if we had someone tied less closely to political entities with close ties to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and other previous political scandals."
Whittaker has contributed $11,000 between 2011 and 2014 to Freeman-Wilson election campaigns, a Times review of county campaign finance records shows.
He received city contracts paying him $276,490 last year and $135,000 this year, so far, Gary city records requested by The Times show.
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Nowacki said he is concerned about Whittaker's past work for the Gary Urban Enterprise Association, a nonprofit whose principal officials were convicted of embezzling about $1 million in public funds.
Whittaker wasn't accused of any wrongdoing in that case.
GUEA's mission was to develop and operate economic development projects in the city's economically depressed, state-designated area, called the Urban Enterprise Zone, one of 28 such zones in the state at the time.
Whittaker received $42,350 from GUEA for accounting services. A Times investigation and a 2005 audit by Crowe Chizek detailed how the nonprofit's officials enriched themselves and failed to account for their spending.
Whittaker said Tuesday, "I was brought in after everything became public by the (Indiana attorney general) to clean stuff up and wind it down."
Nowacki said, "I'm not an accountant, but it bothers me that he was there and all of this went on, and it was all business as usual until a full meltdown."
Councilwoman Sparks-Wade said of Whittaker, "The same person doing the accounting for the city shouldn't be tapped for a financial analysis. We need an independent accounting firm. This is not the end of my investigation or the council's investigation."
The findings of Whittaker's firm in Gary's ambulance fund controversy have been turned over to the Indiana State Board of Accounts for further review.
Whittaker said, "I'm as independent as you can get," he said. "I do support the mayor. I think she is doing a great job."
He said his political affiliations in no way affect his report on the Ambulance Fund or other work he does.
He said in addition to his work for the city, he also does accounting for the Gary/Chicago International Airport, the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and Wayne Township in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
He said he doubts the city could have gotten a more independent report from an outside firm, and he said he employs local residents. "We are trying to move the city forward," he said.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said Tuesday, "These criticisms are coming from critics of me and the city. I am absolutely comfortable with (Whittaker) as a licensed professional who wouldn't undermine his integrity. Anyone can go online to the city website and look into the methodology of this report.
"It is transparent and evenhanded and set out what else needs to be done. It was not a report to make the mayor or the city look good. It was not how to grease something through. "