Like many a small town, gossip and rumors pass from block to block in south suburban Country Club Hills.
Toss in a recent election and any hint of financial impropriety is sure to be the talk of the town.
Mayor Dwight Welch: “A good businessman has to spend money to make money.”
It’s been two years since a WGN-Better Government Association investigation raised serious questions about the Mayor Dwight Welch’s credit card spending.
Treasurer Rhonda Williams: “It’s a wedding gift, $100.”
Then the next year, the newly elected treasurer couldn’t trace millions more for a time.
Today’s Hearing John Murphy; “I don’t have the council’s authority.”
Now, today, the town is in state court battling over $6.5 million. You see, Cook County made a multi-million dollar mistake sending Country Club Hills way too much property tax collection money. The county wants it back.
But the town can’t seem to get its act together. And as you can see, the attorney wouldn’t talk to us. But the treasurer did.
Rhonda Williams: “The money has to be paid back. We spent it. We knew it wasn’t ours and it has to be paid back. That’s the bottom line.”
But paying back the county’s money may be just the beginning. We obtained a confidential audit of country club hill’s finances. It found, rather than 17 city bank accounts, there were 30 many not known to the treasurer or the city council.
Rhonda Williams: “I warned residents. I warned the state. I warned everyone that the numbers weren’t matching up and here with the forensic audit showing I was correct.”
Another city account included the Matthew Welch scholarship foundation named after the mayor’s son who died. The audit raised red flags. Some of the money went to scholarships for the relatives of certain city employees and city vendors. And that the finance committee doesn’t appear to have approved the expenditures.
What’s more: last year the bank stopped sending statements to city hall and instead sent them to the mayor’s home.
Rhonda Williams: “What’s key about that account was that it was set up under the city’s tax id number. It’s a city account and that’s something we have to deal with thru forensic review.”
The financial audit has been the talk of the town since city elections two weeks ago. After some juicy select sections of the audit leaked, it pitted council members against each other as voters went to the polls.
Alderman Steve Burris: “So if you hide information from us and we make votes then we’re in the dark. So just be truthful and be transparent. Give us all the information and then we can make intelligent votes on all the situations that are going on.”
Roland Burris’s nephew, Steve said the audit shows something’s fishy. His opponent, James Ford who has the mayor’s backing, blamed Burris for the audit leak before Election Day.
Alderman James Ford: “Of course I’m concerned as an alderman. I’m concerned for the citizens i represent. But i need to have facts and since we did hire an audit firm, they need to come forward and present that information to the council as a whole.”
The drama continued up until the day before the election ballots were counted when the mayor vetoed finishing the audit. And even though the mayor’s man won the council seat, before he could start his job, the old council over-rode the veto, so the audit will continue.
Andy Shaw leads the Better Government Association (BGA) and says “an audits not enough. We need people with law enforcement powers to determine if this has been criminal activity. It’s certainly bad municipal behavior, bad government, its misconduct, its dysfunction and the taxpayers have a right to see if there’s been illegality.”
Mayor Welch, through a PR firm, responded that the city council chose to make the treasurer and council member Burris the sole point people for the financial audit. So it’s out of his hands. The statement went on to say the city has paid back a third of what it owes Cook County with more to come.
The mayor contends the scholarship fund in his son’s name was not set up under city jurisdiction. Which is why this audit may be so important because there’s so many different stories about the money.
This was a WGN and Better Government Association investigation.