CHICAGO — High above the loop on the 24th floor of the Cook County Building, where we’re told our tax dollars are hard at work, we found this county employee fast asleep at his desk.
Fox Chicago News reporter Dane Placko said to an employee, “You had your hands folded, your head slumped and you were sleeping. Can you tell us what you do for the County Highway Department?”
It’s a question he found himself asking repeatedly as he watched county highway bosses in the field, getting groceries, hitting the bank, and killing time rather than filling potholes.
For several days last week, Fox Chicago News and the Better Government Association followed county highway supervisors including Mike Ponticelli, an engineering assistant earning more than $74,000. He arrived at the Des Plaines district headquarters before 7 am. While he munched on an apple, and leaned back in his chair, the road crews spent about an hour moving equipment back and forth across the yard. After they headed out to begin work, Ponticelli took off as well, not to the worksite, but to a local bank where he got cash.
Then it was off to a sandwich shop in Des Plaines where Ponticelli met a woman. Inside, they met with a man who showed them a software program on a computer. After more than an hour, Ponticelli kissed her goodbye. Then, he drove to Skokie where nearly five hours after starting work, he donned a yellow vest and began to supervise.
We showed our video to Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool. He said he wasn’t surprised.
“We’ve seen abuse after abuse in the county highway department and this is just the latest installment. They’re not expected by management to work for a living and I think your investigation brings it home crystal clear,” said Claypool.
What’s also clear is a large number of highway employees work downtown, pushing paper rather than fixing roads. Using the Freedom of Information Act, our investigation found 40 percent of the department’s employees sit behind a desk at 69 wests Washington: clerks, special assistants, engineering assistants, and dozens of administrative assistants. There were 137 total. Do we really need 137 white collar workers? -Not one of them was carrying a shovel.
“Am I saying every place is going to have employees that are trying to skirt their duties? If you’re going to have an operation of 24,000 employees, I’m sure there’s going to be some people who are trying not to do their job. It’s our job to find out who those people are,” sound Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.
So how did they miss Alex Moreno sleeping in broad daylight at county highway headquarters? Moreno makes more than $88,000 a year and is the brother of Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno.
“This is what is too often the face of Cook County government. I mean this is the patronage system right here,” said Claypool.
When asked to give a one sentence description of what he does for the County Highway Department, Alex Moreno said that he was, “in charge of the records department.”
We were also mystified as to what a highway engineer was doing. We followed Bharat Patel, who makes $81,000 a year, as he left district headquarters in Schaumburg and stopped in Elk Grove Village to take some pictures of a construction site. Then a wild, meandering drive back through Schaumburg, Streamwood, and into Hoffman Estates. He continued to South Barrington, Inverness, Palatine, Rolling Meadows, and Barrington Hills. Other than lunch, Patel never stopped or got out of his car.
When asked what he does, he said “I’m supervising my crews.”
Patel has accumulated the third highest total of overtime in the highway department. Ponticelli, the man we watched in the restaurant, is number two.
So are taxpayers getting their money’s worth? Using simple math, we divided the number of highway employees into the number of road miles the county maintains. In Cook County, the formula works out to a little more than four miles per employee. But in the in surrounding counties, it’s anywhere from six to eight miles per employee.