George Sheldon is already in Miami heading up the private adoption and child services agency, Our Kids. But his departure from Illinois doesn't mean an end to the investigation into the mess the former Illinois Department of Children and Family Services director left behind. It goes on apace.
The Chicago Tribune last week unraveled new details "in state ethics reports about insider contract deals and allegations of Sheldon and his top aide's mismanagement during his tenure at the scandal-tainted agency."
The Tribune now reports Illinois paid an unexplainably exorbitant fee to a longtime Sheldon confidant, Christopher Pantaleon. Pantaleon, with whom Sheldon co-owns a rental home in Florida, was one of his first acts of business after arriving from Florida in February 2015. At that time Sheldon hired a Florida technology firm, Five Points Technology Group, that subcontracted with his friend for a $30,000 job. With Sheldon's approval, the initial subcontract was extended two years. In the end, Pantaleon walked away with $262,000 for 33 weeks of work.
Pantaleon also billed DCFS $17,774 for flights between Florida and Illinois, as well as for hotels, taxis and incidental expenses.
Then, Sheldon's top Cook County administrator, Jacquetta Colyer, resigned last month following a confidential state watchdog report that "alleged she failed to account for thousands of dollars in holiday gift cards donated to teenage state wards." Colyer -- also hired from among Sheldon's Florida friends, former aides and lobbyists -- failed to distribute or account for more than half of the 420 gift cards worth a total of at least $9,000 that were donated last year.
Sheldon, remember, is a longtime Florida Democrat. He occupied positions as state representative, deputy attorney general for Central Florida, and secretary of the Department of Children and Families until 2011, when President Obama advanced him to the national stage as acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It is these ties to the Sunshine State that captured the attention of the Illinois inspector general.
Sheldon took the reins of the Illinois DCFS after what Danielle Holley in nonprofitquarterly.org labeled "its own period of significant executive transition, churning through seven directors in the three years before Sheldon accepted the role."
He got the job by promising sweeping changes, principally advancing the technology DCFS was using to identify cases of child neglect and abuse and target the efforts of his team.
But what did Sheldon do first, two Illinois inspectors general ask rhetorically? He partnered with pals who would receive lucrative contracts associated with Illinois DCFS partnerships.
Sheldon explained to the Tribune, “I came into a troubled department at best. It was apparent to me when I got in here that I needed some people who were knowledgeable and I could trust.”
That answer isn't washing with Illinois officials. Those knowledgeable, trustworthy people -- including his driver Igor Davidovich Anderson and regional administrator Colyer -- were all embroiled in their own ethics and mismanagement challenges, says a Tribune team of writers.
A series of confidential state watchdog findings were given to Gov. Bruce Rauner in the weeks before Sheldon resigned on June 15. Rauner personally urged him to remain in Illinois, Sheldon said: "He asked me to stay on as recently as a few weeks before I left."
The Tribune "learned the details of the confidential reports by state Executive Inspector General Maggie Hickey and DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane through interviews with Sheldon and others contacted by investigators, as well as people who read the reports." On top of that, the newspaper gathered hundreds of pages of state contract and hiring documents to examine the deals independently.
Neither Hickey nor Kane are talking on the record about the specifics of their investigations.
But Rauner now believes Sheldon violated state conflict of interest rules, according to his spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick.
"We respect the investigatory independent function of the (executive inspector general) and take seriously all employees' ethical obligations," Patrick said. "We agreed in full with the report's recommendations and are working to implement them."
Last fall, Colyer announced a drive to collect gift cards for teenagers in state care. The department approached Lurie Children's Hospital for help. Hospital maintenance staff, surgeons, food service workers and other employees gave DCFS 331 gift cards worth a total of $8,125 for stores ranging from Gap and Old Navy to Walmart, Target and Foot Locker, hospital spokeswoman Julie Pesch told the Tribune.
Kane reported that Colyer failed to distribute 143 of the total 420 cards and kept them in her possession. At least 114 more gift cards were unaccounted for, according to people who read the Inspector General's report.
Colyer told investigators she and DCFS staff gave out cards at three mid-December holiday parties. But DCFS staff and private agency case workers complained Colyer didn't make sure the gift cards left over were distributed, and rebuffed or ignored the inquiries of some workers who reached out to her later about getting cards for youths, according to descriptions of Kane's report and Tribune interviews.
Among the new allegations, Sheldon violated state contract rules when he directed staff to hire a for-profit event planning firm he had used in Florida, Kane concluded in one recent confidential investigation, according to people who reviewed it.
After the state procurement office blocked that $33,000 no-bid contract because the work could be done by Illinois firms or existing state employees, Sheldon attempted to arrange for a Chicago research institution to subcontract the work to the Florida events firm, according to Tribune interviews with people involved in the contract or contacted in the subsequent investigation. That deal ultimately fell through, they said.
New reports from Hickey and Kane's offices also add details to Sheldon's controversial hiring of a Tallahassee 25-year-old as his confidential assistant and driver, which Sunshine State News reported in May. DCFS later terminated Igor Davidovich Anderson's employment contract, saying his driver's license had been revoked after Florida DUI and reckless driving arrests, while Anderson also falsified time sheets and billed the agency for driving Sheldon to Saugatuck, Mich., for a vacation -- again, a story SSN and the Tribune already carried.
But new watchdog reports allege Sheldon personally gave Anderson $1,500 in cash and paid for a plane ticket to New York after his contract was terminated. Sheldon also gave a glowing recommendation when Anderson applied for another job in Chicago, according to people who read the reports, calling him an "exemplary employee."
But after the Hickey and Kane's reports, Sheldon told the Tribune, "Clearly it wasn't my best hire."
In recent months, a number of stories of public nonprofit ethics scandals have come to light. Goodwill Omaha and Livestrong Foundation are only two. Our Kids Miami/Monroe, which hired George Sheldon without a nationwide search -- on a single board member's recommendation -- would be wise to stay watchful. A scandal like Sheldon's in Illinois can send organizations reeling, taking years for their leaders and brands to recover.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith. The majority of this story came from the Chicago Tribune.