Park District Examines Business Practices After BGA/FOX Investigation

The Chicago Park District is taking a hard look at how business is done after we questioned what top park officials were doing with their credit cards.

CHICAGO—A Better Government Association/FOX Chicago News investigation is getting some results. The Chicago Park District is taking a hard look at how business is done after we questioned what top park officials were doing with their credit cards.

The Park District's top lawyer, Lupe Garcia, admits the $400 million/year agency has not done a good job tracking credit card expenses racked up by the Superintendent's Chief of Staff, Shawn Schmidt.

"We are definitely taking a look at some of the concerns that were raised by your reports," Garcia said.

Last week, Superintendent Tim Mitchell suspended Schmidt without pay after our investigation found that Schmidt had been using his government credit card to pay for stays in expensive hotels, meals at fancy restaurants, and airline upgrades while on Park District trips. The problem for Mitchell is that many of those charges covered Mitchell's expenses as well, which he defends as the cost of doing business.

"You look at other governments, they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in Washington, on lobbyists. I go, I bring a staff person. We lobby," he said.

Garcia said the Park District Board has retained a pair of law firms to conduct an audit and review of District spending and procedures, and said those auditors will expand their investigation to look at what we found.

Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association says it's about time the Park District took action. In just the past five months, BGA/FOX Chicago News investigations have uncovered a series of Park District scandals, including a top manager signing off on a no-bid contract for his female roommate and the hiring of another manager who had just been fired by the City of Chicago after crashing his city vehicle while drunk.

Shaw says the park district should consider hiring an independent inspector general, or expand the authority of Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson to include the district. Garcia says that's now under consideration, but criticizes Ferguson for failing to return her calls when she's asked for help.

"He's never had the courtesy to call me and talk to me about his concerns. I've reached out to him. I've scheduled two meetings with him to talk to him, and he's never bothered to show up for the meetings," Garcia said.

Ferguson's spokesperson blames the missed meetings on scheduling problems, and said since the IG has no statutory authority at the Park District, there's not much they could have discussed anyway.

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel has not yet said whether he plans to make any changes in Park District administration.