Kankakee County has not had an elected auditor fulfill their entire duties since 2003.
It’s the framework for a lawsuit filed by Kankakee County Auditor Jake Lee last Friday filed against Kankakee County, the Kankakee County Board and Kankakee County Board Chairman Andrew Wheeler.
The president for the court filings have been evolving since Lee took office in 2016.
Shortly after taking office, Lee approached the Board after finding Finance duties did not lie with his elected position, but rather a Finance Department head on the Kankakee County Board. That position is currently held by Steve McCarty, an appointed official created at the taxpayers’ expense.
A copy of the lawsuit obtained through FOIA by Country Herald, cites findings dating back to 2003 that split the elected office of Auditor in Kankakee into two positions, leaving Lee without select duties for the County. According to Resolution #2003-10-14-897 which created a newly formed Finance Department on October 14th 2003, reasons for creating the department ‘was vague’ only explaining the County is “separating the two departments” of Auditor and Finance and acts to “segregate” their duties.
The suit says Kankakee County’s split duties are ‘unlawful’ and ‘must be declared void.’
“It is not lawful to separate the duties of an elected official and transfer them to a newly created appointed office, in this case the Finance Department. As such, this Resolution must be declared void.” the suit reads.
According to the lawsuit, Chairman Wheeler responded to Lee in an email read June 1, 2017, saying: “There will never be a time that your [Auditor’s] office can approve, audit, and pay the bills,” the suit reads. “But it is Steve [McCarty] that manages that for the board, and that will not change regardless of any opinion. Those are our rights by the Illinois Counties.”
“The office of auditor, for historical context, was created in 1964. … The office remained relatively untouched until 2003 when the then-auditor, Mr. McCarty, who is now the finance director, went to the county board for the office to be separated.” Lee said in a NAACP candidate forum back in March.
Lee defeated Brandon Meredith for the Republican nominee later in the month.
By law, the Illinois Legislature mandates an Auditor to be the general accountant of a county and keep its general accounts in counties of 275,000 population or less.
A further alleged attempt to overstep the elected office of Auditor, according to the complaint, came in February 2019 after HB3680, was filed with the Illinois Legislature, proposing: “a method to no longer mandate the use of the Auditor as the County’s accountant” in counties with a population of 275,000 or less.”
According to documents, the proposed bill was petitioned by Kankakee County and filed by 106th District Rep. Thomas Bennett.
The reasoning behind the proposed bill in the 101st General Assembly according to the suit was to change ‘shall’ to ‘may’ to allow such actions to hold a legal president in Kankakee.
“The entire premise of this change was to change shall to may, so as to allow a County to itself choose to divest an elected Auditor of the accounting duties that are mandated by 55 ILCS 5/3-1006,” the lawsuit reads. “Over a year later it has not been acted upon. It has not been passed. It is not the law.”
The 39-page document informs the public of growing tension between offices since the findings were originally presented to the Kankakee County Board, including an accusation of ‘destruction of government property’ by Auditor Lee, made by Chairman Wheeler.
“This allegation would be laughable if it were not for the fact that it is part of the long established, and consistently endeavored upon, interference with the Auditor performing his duties.” The lawsuit says, citing a laminated piece of paper that had been allegedly placed on the inside door of the Auditor’s Office by Chairman Wheeler. “Apparently, Defendants assert this piece of paper equated to public property.” The lawsuit states.
According to the filing, the claim was made less than a month after Chairman Wheeler read email statement towards the Auditor’s office. A month later, Wheeler moved Lee’s Office off the 5th floor to a ‘less functional space’ than before located on the 4th floor.
“These statements and actions demonstrate the clear, improper and unlawful commitment of Defendant Wheeler to continue the usurpation and isolation of the Auditor’s Office despite what the law demands. This course of conduct has continued. It must be rectified.” The lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit claims the Kankakee County Board continues to justify actions ‘justified by twisted language and concepts’ used from the Federal Government’s Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS).
“Such assertions are dubious, as Illinois’ law establishes that an independent auditor is elected by the citizens of the county to act as Defendants’ oversight – as opposed to an appointed official who is reliant on that very audited party for his/her employment.” The lawsuit states.
The last line of communication received by the Auditor’s office was on August 7th 2020 when the Board ‘laid out Defendants’ continuing resolve to not follow the law’, ‘but rather to follow the law as the Defendants desire it to be.’
“It is evident that the Kankakee County Defendants have placed an over reliance on the Finance Department and have stripped away duties of the County Auditor,” the suit claims, citing a comparison between budgets annually dating back to 2008.
According to documentation provided in the complaint, since 2008, budgets between the two offices have differed just shy of half a million dollars ($450,908). That includes two such years have a differential between an Auditor’s budget and the Finance Department’s budget of over $127,777 in 2008 and 2009.
Since 2016, Lee’s first year as Auditor, the Budget has never differed by more than $7,000 between the two offices.
“The numbers of the last few years appear to show the elected and appointed departments as having a budget nearly in line with each other, even though one is statutorily tasked with far more duties. However, setting aside that point for the moment, it is important to note that the Finance Department actually has a higher budget than this budget would convey.” the lawsuit says.
Last week, Chairman Wheeler announced he will not seek reelection to the Kankakee County Board. Wheeler has served on Kankakee County’s Board since November 2012 and Chairman since 2016.