Cicero Township Schools Treasurer Martin O’Connor wrote himself and his employees checks totaling more than $48,000 when he realized his job was in jeopardy, township officials said Monday.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said Don Robinson, the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 assistant superintendent for finance and operations. “I hope this is being pursued with the state’s attorney because I consider it a criminal act.”
O’Connor gave himself roughly $29,000 in the form of a payroll check. After deductions, the check he cashed equaled $19,345.33, according to testimony Monday at a hearing on his dismissal.
Misappropriation of funds was one of seven charges made against the treasurer, who was suspended without pay Sept. 26 pending Monday’s hearing. The hearing was continued to Tuesday afternoon after press time.
The Treasurer’s Office oversees hundreds of millions of dollars of investments for six public school districts in Oak Park, Berwyn and Cicero.
O’Connor cut checks for himself and his four employees based on accrued vacation time on Sept. 25, the day before a special meeting of the Township Trustees of Schools to consider O’Connor’s dismissal, attorneys for the board said.
O’Connor did not deny the claim, but argued that it was proper for him to make the payments. He said that when his predecessor retired he was given cash payments for his unused vacation time, and that a lawsuit brought against the office showed that unused benefits had to be paid to employees.
The board’s attorneys, led by Nanci Rogers of the law firm of Robbins Schwartz Nicholas Lifton & Taylor, countered that such payouts would be appropriate only after an employee’s termination of employment. All of the employees still had jobs when the checks were issued, and O’Connor as of Tuesday was still an employee.
Also, the number of vacation days O’Connor used when calculating vacation days for the payouts were inflated, Rogers argued. At the very least, the checks were for approximately $19,000 more than he and other employees could reasonably be owed.
The other major charge against O’Connor was for violating state laws governing the use of public resources and time for political fundraising.
Rogers said O’Connor mailed letters on township stationery to banks and investment companies that handle the office’s funds asking for donations to the Committee for School Financial Excellence, a lobbyist organization.
In a statement, O’Connor said he had to “confess to being a little naive on this item. … With new wisdom on this matter I can state it will not happen again if I remain treasurer.”
The other six charges against O’Connor involved job failures, mostly dealing with timeliness and accurate accounting practices. In one example, from Dist. 97, a general state aid payment was not appropriately distributed to the district’s account until 10 months after it should have been received.
O’Connor told Wednesday Journal that if dismissed from his position he will likely sue the board for the entire amount of his two-year contract, which the board approved in February. Whether the contract is valid, however, is a “hotly debated” issue, said Ken Florey, the board’s regular attorney, also with Robbins Schwartz. Board attorneys said the contract has not been signed. O’Connor said he signed the contract, the board approved it, and he feels it’s valid.
The hearing got off to a shaky start. Frank Howard, O’Connor’s attorney, demanded that Trustees of Schools President Bill Sullivan recuse himself from the hearing because it appeared to Howard that Sullivan was the “judge, jury and executioner” and that O’Connor deserved a fair hearing.
“Absent that we do not intend to participate in this hearing,” Howard said.
Sullivan, the board attorneys and other board members agreed there was no reason for Sullivan to step aside.
At that, Howard and O’Connor rose to leave, but Trustee Lou Angeloni urged O’Connor to stay. O’Connor asked for a five-minute recess, which was granted.
After the break, Sullivan announced that O’Connor and his attorney told him they would not participate in the hearing. With sitcom-like timing, O’Connor then entered the room, talking on his cell phone, then sat down at the table, bringing the hearing to a halt.
After he ended the call, Sullivan asked O’Connor if he was there as a participant or a member of the community. O’Connor said, “As both,” then his phone rang, and he left the room to take the call while Sullivan read his opening statement.