UPDATED: Like a kid at summer camp, George Sheldon wants to come home.
Or does he just want to get out while he can? You decide.
According to Wednesday stories in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, Sheldon -- director of the the Illinois Department of Children and Families since January 2015 -- is facing an inspector general's ethics probe and is tangled in allegations that a top Cook County aide -- one of his Florida hires -- misused her authority.
But he likely will have the opportunity to walk away from it all. Back to Florida where he came from, where another agency is already courting him. Sheldon has a date next week to talk about the top job at Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe, Inc., a large nonprofit that recently lost three of its top administrators following the suicides of youth in the agency's care.
Keith Ward, chairman of the board for Our Kids, told the Chicago Sun-Times he plans to sit down with Sheldon when he’s in Florida next week.
“The board this morning authorized me to talk to him, to negotiate with him and make him an offer,” said Ward. The job paid its most recent CEO an annual $200,000. In fact, Sheldon could begin as early as May 15.
"He wants to come home. ... We're very fortunate," Ward told the board. "He's just No. 1 on anybody's list."
Sheldon, who was managing partner of a Tallahassee lobbying and consultancy firm during the 1980s and 1990s, rose through Democratic Florida politics as a state representative, deputy attorney general and from 2008-2011, secretary of the Department of Children and Families.
President Barack Obama then appointed him acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, where he stayed until 2013.
Back in Florida in 2014, Sheldon lost a campaign for attorney general against incumbent Republican Pam Bondi.
The ethics investigation isn't the only probe to have befallen Sheldon on the job. Local lawmakers grilled him last week after the death of a baby girl found in a Joliet Township house that DCFS had visited the day before. The child was reported missing shortly after the DCFS visit on April 25 and was found dead under a couch in the house shortly before midnight April 26.
In the first full year of Sheldon’s leadership, DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane investigated 24 allegations of misconduct, according to Kane’s most recent annual report.
In four of those incidents, DCFS rejected some or all of the IG’s recommendations. For Kane, that was a change in attitude compared to previous DCFS administrations.
“I think you can say there was a little shift in how much oversight they welcomed,” Kane said. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened.”
Of those 24 allegations, nine concerned the falsification of records.
Certainly Gov. Bruce Rauner, who appointed Sheldon in February 2015, is happy with him.
“When I took office, DCFS was in shambles from a lack of leadership and direction,” Rauner was quoted as saying. “Today, under the direction of Director George Sheldon, the agency has made an impressive transformation to ensure we are protecting our state’s most vulnerable children.”
Sheldon was appointed after a period of extreme turmoil in the Illinois agency. In January 2015, he became the fifth DCFS director in less than a year and a half.
"Credited with bringing in tens of millions of new federal dollars to Illinois," says the Tribune, "Sheldon focused on reducing the number of youth in residential treatment centers as well as shortening the length of time young wards spend in state custody."
His plan to transform Illinois DCFS centered on cutting-edge technology that would help DCFS identify youth in danger of abuse and neglect, and increase the efficiency of child protection investigators, according to his public statements gathered by the Tribune. To accomplish that, he tapped a circle of Florida friends, former aides and lobbyists, records show.
Florida cronies at issue
The Tribune discovered the ethics probes by DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane and Illinois Executive Inspector General Maggie Hickey had to do with his "Florida friends."
Though details of their investigations aren't public, the Tribune found that Sheldon awarded more than $1 million in computer contracts that benefited some of those Florida associates.
Sheldon said the contracts were enormously beneficial to the agency, and argued that it was smart to tap Florida experts he trusted and admired from previous work.
"I came into a troubled department at best," he told the Tribune. "It was apparent to me when I got in here that I needed some people who were knowledgeable and I could trust."
The Tribune examined several contracts and hires by Sheldon and found ties stretching back to his campaigns for Florida office. Here's what reporters found:
-- DCFS gave Florida firm Five Points Technology Group $811,000 worth of consulting contracts. That money gave Sheldon's former campaign worker and aide Christopher Pantaleon at least $30,000 as a subcontractor, state contract records show. Sheldon and Pantaleon had owned two Florida homes together, land records show. Pantaleon had worked for Sheldon's political campaign and served as his Florida Department of Children and Families spokesman.
-- In September 2015, Sheldon hired as his driver and confidential personal assistant 25-year-old Igor Davidovich Anderson, a Florida man whose driver's license was revoked following arrests in Tallahassee for DUI and reckless driving, Florida court records and Illinois government reports show. In that job, Anderson, previously a military human resources officer and restaurant company employee, "was expected not only to drive Sheldon but also stand in for him at meetings he could not attend."
Anderson eventually was fired in 2016 for driving on vacation trips, then billing DCFS. He was forced to repay the state $1,326.
Sheldon explained to the Tribune, "I have kind of a history of trying to give young people an opportunity."
-- Anderson was recommended to Sheldon by Anderson's former boss Adam Corey, a Tallahassee lobbyist who co-owned lounges and had helped Sheldon with his political campaigns. Corey's Tallahassee Hospitality Group had donated $1,166 to Sheldon's campaign fund in 2014 and one of Corey's restaurants, Versailles Lounge, hosted a Sheldon fundraiser that year.
-- In September 2015, six months after Sheldon was appointed DCFS director, Corey registered in Florida as a lobbyist for the computer firm Presidio Networked Solutions. Months later, in June 2016, Illinois gave Presidio two contracts totaling $1 million to work on DCFS computer systems.
"A month later," say Tribune reporters, "Presidio boosted its payments to Corey's lobbying firm, from $20,000 to $40,000 each half year to $70,000 to $90,000, according to Florida disclosure reports that list lobbyist compensation in ranges instead of exact dollar amounts."
Corey denied any wrongdoing.
"I represent Presidio in Florida, not Chicago. I did not facilitate any introduction that I am aware of between Presidio and George Sheldon," Corey told the Tribune.
Said Sheldon, "I knew nothing about Presidio and to this day I've never talked to Adam about it."
-- Tallahassee consultant and journalist Gary Yordon had produced ads for Sheldon's Florida political campaigns. At DCFS, Sheldon gave Yordon's Zachary Group a $35,000 contract to make two web videos about drowning dangers and safe sleeping practices for infants -- "even though Illinois' Central Management Services typically creates such public service announcements," the newspaper points out.
-- In Illinois, DCFS under Sheldon gave Eckerd Kids, a Clearwater-based nonprofit, a $375,000 contract to help develop a web-based program to pinpoint abuse and neglect investigations with the highest probability of serious injury or death to children.
-- One of Sheldon's most important hires from Florida was Jacquetta "Jacqui" Colyer, who ran that state's Miami-Dade and Monroe county child welfare office under Sheldon. She is DCFS Cook County regional administrator under Sheldon in Illinois.
Colyer resigned in 2011 after a state panel described management failures at the agency that contributed to the torture and death of 10-year-old ward Nubia Barahona, according to published reports. She had previously worked for the nonprofit Our Kids, the Miami-Dade agency looking to hire Sheldon.
Inspector General Kane recommended in January that Colyer be disciplined "up to and including" firing for alleged incidents of abusing her authority, putting a worker in danger and falsifying information, according to government reports. The inspector general reports did not identify her by name, but the Tribune confirmed Colyer was the subject of the recommended discipline through other public records and interviews.
Sheldon defended Colyer. He told the Tribune, "Jacqui is aggressive and that's what I was looking for, and she gets involved in individual cases. ... I think she was acting in good faith."
Sheldon claims he isn't sure what he will do -- though to associates and the media in Illinois, he increasingly sounds as if whatever he has in mind involves suitcases and a moving van. Besides Miami, he has even had an agency in Southern California reach out to him with talk of a job.
“I do think they’re options I need to consider,” he said, admitting to the Sun-Times the DCFS post “is the toughest job I’ve ever had.”
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith. This story was updated from the 11 p.m. Wednesday version, to include some of the work of the Chicago Tribune investigative team.