Damage control is not one of Todd Stroger's specialties.
The beleaguered Cook County Board president's recent round of media interviews has raised more questions than it has answered over what he knew about former patronage worker Tony Cole and Cole's relationship with Stroger's cousin Donna Dunnings.
Stroger forced Dunnings, the county's Chief Financial Officer, to resign April 17 after uncovering what he called "explosive" information about her relationship with Cole.
Cole was a restaurant busboy when Stroger personally hired him in October to a $58,000 a year job as Dunnings' administrative assistant. On April 10 after the Sun-Times' Mark Konkol discovered that Cole's lengthy rap sheet included a felony conviction, Stroger fired Cole.
Questions quickly arose as to the nature of the relationship between Cole and Dunnings, who had twice bailed Cole out jail while he was working for the county, including whether the two were romantically involved.
In an attempt to quash the fallout, which included County Commissioners Larry Suffredin and Tony Peraica calling for his resignation, Stroger embarked on a series of interviews that have done little to answer questions or stem the tide of criticism.
During an interview with Carol Marin on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" Monday, Stroger appeared testy and impatient when asked what he knew about Cole's record.
"Gang-rape charges, check-cutting charges, resisting arrest and threatening a girlfriend with an Uzi sub-machine gun. Tony Cole was in trouble for years going back to when he was a basketball star in Georgia," Marin said. "Did you know none of that?"
Stroger admitted to knowing that Cole "had a problem" but said he did not know how serious it was. He said it was a judgment call on whether to give Cole a second chance and that doing so was a mistake. Stroger also said, "I'm sure employees get arrested all the time," a comment a County spokesman tried to clarify Tuesday. Stroger also tried his hand at media criticism, telling Marin at the end of the interview that he enjoyed watching the public television channel when he thought it was "fair and balanced." Watch the interview:
Appearing on Fox Chicago, Stroger denied that Dunnings and Cole had a relationship that Dunnings was trying to help Cole "become a man."
In an interview with WGN Stroger said he fired Dunnings "for her own good" but that she had done nothing wrong.
Stroger is skating on increasingly thin political ice. Three suburban townships, frustrated with the county's high sales tax, voted to secede from Cook County earlier this month. And Stroger's support among Chicago's African American voters, which was a rock-solid 90 percent in the 2006 primary, is also wavering.
"People are not going to just vote for you 'cause you're black anymore," Ald. Ed Smith (28th) told CBS 2. "People are looking at quality, integrity, character."
Smith is backing Stroger's only announced challenger for board president, Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th). Stroger said he plans to run for re-election next year and he recently pitched the idea of rolling back a portion of his sales tax hike in a move that appears timed to help his chances. But the questions surrounding the hiring and firing of Dunnings and Cole lengthen an already long road to a second term.
Several members of the County Board called a special meeting Monday and signed a letter to county clerk David Orr, asking him to investigate the circumstances surrounding Dunnings' resignation. Commissioner Suffredin is calling for a federal investigation.
Stroger dismissed Suffredin and Peraica as "political hounds" and said all they care about is a good sound bite.
The Sun-Times has more questions it wants Stroger to answer, including how Cole managed to get promoted despite two arrests, and whether, as Cole told the Sun-Times, he once called Stroger to come bail him out.
Stroger communications director Eugene Mullins told the Tribune that Stroger accompanied Dunnings the first time she bailed Cole out of jail, shortly before 2 a.m. on November 20.