It’s been a little more than seven months since Democrat Tammy Wendt joined the Cook County Board of Review, but she’s already being accused of “flagrant nepotism” — and firing back that her fellow commissioners are “territorial” bullies who haven’t exactly rolled out the welcome wagon.
The fireworks on the obscure panel that handles appeals to property tax assessments started when Wendt allegedly hired her first cousin, Todd Thielmann, for a cushy $150,000-a-year job as her chief of staff office.
“This flagrant nepotism flies in the face of the transparency and good government that Cook County taxpayers deserve,” Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi said in a written statement Thursday.
Wendt fired back that “this an attempt to silence me because I am not part of the ‘Good ‘ole Boys’ network.”
Wendt is best known as a member of former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke’s defense team. She was elected to the county panel last year, and it doesn’t appear to have been a smooth transition.
During a contentious meeting of the three-member board last month, Wendt’s staffing decision came under scrutiny as a violation of the county’s ethics rules and the appeals board’s own newly amended ethics policy.
Both Cabonargi and the third member of the board, Commissioner Larry Rogers, tried to question Wendt about the apparent ethics violation, but Wendt refused to directly address their questions, saying “I’m not on trial here.”
On Thursday, Cabonargi said in his statement that he informed Wendt that hiring Thielmann was a violation of the county’s ethics policy “which forbids hiring and managing a first cousin.”
“It has also come to my attention that Commissioner Wendt advocated for Mr. Thielmann to have a starting salary above and beyond what a first year Chief of Staff should make,” Cabonargi said.
“Mr. Thielmann should be fired immediately and Commissioner Wendt’s handling of this situation should be investigated by the Cook County Inspector General.”
Records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show Thielmann’s salary was bumped from $135,000 to $150,000 in January.
Wendt issued her own statement on Thursday, neither confirming nor denying that Thielmann was her cousin, but arguing she “hired the best person for the job who has extensive experience and qualifications.”
She also said that she consulted one of the “nation’s top election attorneys” and was told the hiring “did not violate any policies.”
During the board meeting last month, Cabonargi and Rogers sought to amend the property tax appeal board’s ethics codes to bring it more in line with Cook County’s ethics rules surrounding the hiring of familial relationships, specifically adding first cousins to the board’s list.
Wendt didn’t vote to approve the change, which would specifically bar her hiring her first cousin. She also repeatedly refused to discuss it with her fellow Democratic commissioners.
Wendt objected that the office should have a qualified, unbiased attorney involved in reshaping the ethics policy and others in the office.
Rogers pointed out to Wendt that all three of them are lawyers. But she fired back that none of them specialize in ethics law.
The discussion went further south when Rogers asked Wendt if she agrees the board should conform to county ethics codes. When Wendt didn’t directly address the question, Rogers asked if she knew of any violations of the ethics policy.
“I’m not answering your questions,” Wendt said during the June meeting, which is posted on YouTube. “I’ve answered as much as I’m going to answer.”
During the meeting, Cabonargi said he put Wendt on notice about violating the policy in her third week in office.
Wendt accused Cabonargi and Rogers of hiring each other’s family members.
The two commissioners denied the accusation, though the county’s inspector general previously found the office’s hiring process pulled in politically connected workers, including the child of one commissioner’s law partner.
Wendt accused the two fellow Democrats of working against her since she joined the board and not “welcoming me with open arms.”
“You have been nothing but bullies, to be frank, since I got here,” Wendt told Rogers and Cabonargi. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m a female. I don’t know what the problem is, but you’re both very territorial.”
Wendt elaborated on that in her statement on Thursday.
“I did not hire who was sent to me nor do I owe any political favors,” she said. “The effort to change the [Board of Review’s] Ethics policy is an obvious attempt to control and silence me while ignoring other practices that are not in the public’s best interest.”
She went on to say she welcomes a “county-wide, independent, public investigation into all hires at the BOR and the county, insider tax favors given to cronies and ‘exchange hires’ of family and business associates.”
The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this month that the FBI is investigating a Cook County Board of Review employee who allegedly used his position to lower property assessments in exchange for thousands of dollars in cash bribes, according to a federal court affidavit.
That employee also said the money would be split with others in the office, insisting that, “I’m just the middle guy.”
Cabonargi and Rogers both responded to the revelation by vowing to open an internal investigation. Wendt called for a ”full forensic accounting,” saying at the time, “I hope this serves as a wake-up call to everyone.”
Wendt is a former assistant Cook County state’s attorney best known for being part of the defense team that represented Van Dyke in the 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.
In November, Wendt was elected to the Board of Review, which reviews and potentially modifies property assessments in Cook County. She ousted the board’s lone Republican Dan Patlak.
“I am looking forward to filling my staff with qualified professionals who I can lead into this next chapter with the Board of Review,” Wendt said after the final votes were tallied.