Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans has hired a law firm to interview his employees in an investigation of possible fraud regarding government coronavirus relief loans they got under a program to help businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evans told the county judiciary’s more than 2,700 employees in a Nov. 30 letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times that he has retained the Zuber Lawler law firm to speak with those who got the loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, an investigation he said should take about two months.
A spokeswoman for Evans wouldn’t comment.
The Sun-Times has identified 20 of Evans’ employees who appear to have received a total of $530,000 in loans. They work in the adult probation department of the chief judge’s office.
Their names matched those in two databases of PPP recipients. Most of the loans were for about $20,000 apiece, though five employees got more than $40,000 each, and one got $49,999. Almost all of the loans have been forgiven, meaning they don’t need to be repaid, as the law allows if the money is used for an approved purpose, the records show.
Many of the loans were approved in clusters in April 2021 and May 2021. That suggests the possibility that someone helped the employees apply for the money, a source tells the Sun-Times.
In other cases around the country, brokers have been found to have taken a cut of loan proceeds in exchange for setting up fraudulent PPP schemes.
None of Evans’ employees has been charged with any crime in connection with the loans.
In seeking the loans, they told the federal government they needed the money for businesses including catering, real estate, legal services and landscaping companies as well as a beauty salon and a barbershop, records show. All applied as sole proprietors.
The Justice Department’s fraud section, which leads the prosecution of PPP cases, says that nationwide it has filed criminal charges against more than 190 people and seized more than $78 million.
Researchers estimated last year that 15% of the program’s more than $800 billion in loans were fraudulent.
In his letter, Evans noted that PPP fraud is a national problem and has been linked to employees of other Cook County offices.
This year, two Cook County employees have been fired and two quit over accusations they had illegally obtained a total of about $120,000 in PPP loans. Officials referred each of those cases to Cook County and federal prosecutors. And all of those employees were placed on the county’s “no-hire” list.
The employees had worked for the county’s Revenue Department and comptroller and the Cook County Board of Review and held what the Cook County inspector general’s office described in an October report as “sensitive” positions because of their access to taxpayers’ personal information.
According to that report, which didn’t name the employees, the inspector general suspects that another four county workers also fraudulently obtained PPP loans of about $20,000 each and should be fired.
The report said that one, a Bureau of Technology worker, got a loan for a barbershop. Another Bureau of Technology employee got a loan for a catering business. A “high-ranking” human resources employee got one for a personal-training business. And a Board of Review employee got a loan as an “independent contractor.” That employee admitted spending PPP money on a $1,600 Canada Goose jacket, Gucci shoes, clothes, hotel stays and a trip to Miami, according to the inspector general.
The report said one county employee listed as having obtained a PPP loan appeared to have been a victim of identity theft — another massive problem the program has faced.
Investigators also have found evidence that inmates obtained PPP loans while locked up in the Cook County Jail.
“Earlier this year, the sheriff’s office identified more than a dozen individuals in custody that had received large influxes of funds,” says Matthew Walberg, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who runs the jail.
“After reviewing the individuals’ accounts, it was believed it could be a potential misuse of Paycheck Protection Program funds. The sheriff’s office immediately forwarded the information to the FBI for further investigation.”