Ford Heights mayor's taxpayer-funded nonprofit under investigation

Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin's nonprofit group has a welding training program attached to the town’s public works garage. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune)

A south suburban mayor's taxpayer-funded nonprofit has been suspended from state and county grant programs over questions about its finances and accounting, the Tribune has learned.

In addition, the Illinois attorney general's office has started an investigation into the Commission on Economic Opportunity, the job-training nonprofit directed by Ford Heights Mayor Charles Griffin.

Griffin said investigators have been poring through the nonprofit's records and interviewing employees, asking about wrongdoing, but he said the probe is nothing but a "witch hunt" and "political BS."

The nonprofit has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries and cars to Griffin and other executives, and the board charged with watching the purse includes Griffin's family members and political supporters, records show. No criminal charges or lawsuits have been brought by the state.

The Tribune obtained audit information, letters, grant applications and other documents about the nonprofit from Cook County and through an open records request. CEO also provided some financial records upon request.

For years, Griffin has drawn more than $75,000 in annual pay as program director for the group, which until last year brought in nearly $500,000 annually in county and state dollars, primarily for job-training efforts.

Investigators have subpoenaed records from Ford Heights and the nonprofit, according to Griffin. He said one target of the investigation was money received by the nonprofit through the Put Illinois to Work program, a massive influx of federal and later state dollars that allowed his organization to provide administrative services for 700 workers hired by various employers in 2010, some of whom were interviewed by investigators.

Griffin said workers told him they were questioned by investigators about whether the mayor asked for a kickback in order to participate in the program.

"For them to just sabotage my personal integrity and my character was totally, totally unfair," he said. "They're going around the community asking, 'Did the mayor shake you down for money?'"

Griffin described the investigation as a "conspiracy" to shutter minority-run jobs programs.

"I'm not going to jail," said Griffin, 55. "Not at my age. I'm not about to defraud anybody out of anything."

The nonprofit was founded in 1990, and Griffin was brought on part time in 1992, long before he became mayor in 2009. The mayor and his supporters say CEO has helped train thousands of people to use computers and work in building trades.

During the past couple of years, though, records show that Cook County and state grant regulators started asking more questions about how the money was being spent, leading to an increasingly intensive series of audits and demands for records showing where the money was going.

Illinois suspended CEO from one of its grant programs in November 2010 after finding "widespread deficiencies" with its financial management and accounting practices, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The nonprofit was suspended from Cook County's job-grant program last year after it failed to address questions about how money was spent, said Cook County Works director Karin Norington-Reaves.

The nonprofit alleges that Cook County still owes it $500,000 for services rendered under a grant. County officials confirmed that the nonprofit still is owed some job grant money, but they said it's not $500,000.

Griffin said CEO no longer gets public money but is keeping afloat with $200,000 from a private donor he declined to identify.

Family on group's board

Records and interviews show the nonprofit's board has been stocked with Griffin's family. The nonprofit also kept some of Griffin's political allies on its payroll, including a former trustee who was forced off the Village Board in April after being convicted on felony drug charges and now works as a supervisor in Ford Heights' Public Works Department.