The mayor of a small town that is accused of siphoning millions of sales tax dollars from Chicago and elsewhere has used his village credit card for $36,000 in purchases, dinners and trips over four years, records show.
The expenses by Channahon Mayor Joseph Cook, 45, included a $1,300 steak dinner, limousine rides and trips to conferences in Las Vegas, New Orleans and Florida, the Tribune has learned.
Records also show he has been sued at least four times in the last three years over financial issues, including unpaid credit card and chiropractor bills. And the state sued him in 2009 for failing to pay child support, records show.
The Tribune requested and reviewed records related to the mayor after federal authorities charged him last month with failing to file tax returns for himself and his consulting business, Phase One Solutions Inc., from 2005 to 2008. Cook pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanors, but a change of plea hearing has been scheduled.
Channahon, a small village on the outskirts of Joliet with industrial businesses, residential subdivisions and commercial strip centers, only recently became embroiled in the taxing controversy. Chicago and regional transportation authorities alleged in a civil lawsuit filed in August that the village, along with Kankakee, improperly diverted millions of dollars in sales tax revenue by allowing corporations to set up "sham" sales offices in their towns.
The towns say the practice is legal and has boosted the state's total tax revenue. The deals brought in enough money to help Channahon build a new village hall, Cook has said.
Meanwhile, Cook's expense reports show he charged as much as $3,800 a month on his village-issued credit card while leading the town of about 14,000 people. By comparison, former Mayor Wayne Chesson estimated he spent less than $500 on the village credit card during his 16 years as mayor.
During four weeks in 2007, Cook charged a $1,300 dinner at a Shorewood steakhouse and a $1,400 stay at a "luxury time share" in New Orleans' French Quarter while attending a conference, records show. Other charges included about $200 for two meals at a Las Vegas Hooters, $853 on alcohol for an employee Christmas party and almost $1,300 on limousine rides to and from Chicago airports.
Cook also requested and received $2,000 in cash advances from the village before traveling to conferences in Las Vegas and Florida, records show. After submitting a 2007 request labeled "Las Vegas Seminar — Extra Money," the village cut him a $500 check, records show.
Cook, Channahon's mayor since 2003, declined to comment for this story. He handily won re-election last spring to his third term in office.
"I think he's done good for Channahon," said Don Budd, sitting outside his home just past the town limits recently. "They're doing better than some of these other municipalities."
Others say Cook has done a good job of running the city, but that they don't trust him personally. And still others think he's done a poor job.
"Everybody knows him from the time he was a little boy, and they know just about every time he's made a mistake and screwed up," said Terry Morphew, a local business owner who has found little to praise about Cook's management. "To hear the casual talk, people would like to see him go to jail."
Morphew said the mayor put a focus on developing housing at the expense of industrial businesses such as the ones Morphew owns.
Federal prosecutors have been investigating Cook since at least 2009, when they subpoenaed the village for numerous pay and employment records related to the mayor, records show. Their inquiry was apparently related to the Joliet landfill that was at the center of a feud between Chicago Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The landfill's owner, Frank Schmidt, pleaded guilty in July to tax evasion charges. A Schmidt-owned business, Global Recovery Services, was given a Channahon business license that federal prosecutors subpoenaed in 2009 along with Cook's village records, documents show.
Cook's credit card spending dropped sharply after the village received the subpoena, records show. Since receiving the subpoena about two years ago, Cook has spent only about $1,700 on his village credit card.
A lack of oversight on village credit card spending led Trustee Judie Nash to propose new rules for town officials that went into effect about a year ago, she said. Among other things, village officials now must receive board approval before taking trips on the town's dime.
"I'd raised a concern about credit card expenditures in general — not just directed at him," Nash said. "And since that time there hasn't been an issue."
Court records show that the mayor has sometimes struggled with personal debt since 2008.
The state sued Cook in 2009 for failure to pay child support, records show. In an interview, the child's mother said Cook has been "pretty consistent" with his support payments since a court order was entered last year.
But she said she was surprised when federal authorities alleged Cook earned more than $250,000 from 2006 through 2008. Last year, Cook told a judge his annual income was about $16,000 — his mayoral salary. Based on that number, the child's mother gets $273 a month in child support, records show.
The case was settled after Cook affirmed that the girl, now 3, was his and agreed to pay about $3,600 in back child support, records show.
Last year, a Will County judge ordered that part of Cook's mayoral salary be diverted each month to pay more than $1,500 owed to a Joliet chiropractic firm. The money was repaid in March, records show.
In 2009, Cook was sued for allegedly not doing any work after being paid to lobby Will County officials for a Lockport-area building project.
Two years earlier, Cook signed a consulting contract with John Thompson, then the owner of T&S Auto Recycling near southwest suburban Lockport. Thompson wanted to put up a building, and he hired Cook to consult with a design engineer and lobby county officials, according to the contract.
Cook, who worked as a field engineer for Will County from 2003 to 2005, would "give support before various committee meetings" and meet and negotiate with county officials for up to $1,500 a month, according to the contract.
Thompson alleges in his 2009 lawsuit that he borrowed $100,000 to pay Cook. But after pocketing a $1,500 retainer, Cook allegedly did nothing for more than a year, according to the lawsuit, which includes a series of increasingly frustrated emails from the business owners to Cook's village email address.
"Joe, We are lost for words!! Do we have to take this matter to a different level?" reads one of the emails. "I cannot believe how you are handling this !! not even one word from you ... what if you hired someone that did this? Afterall you are the mayor right???"
The case eventually went to arbitration. Thompson sought more than $10,000 in damages, including $9,000 in interest on his unused $100,000 loan, but he was awarded only his original $1,500 payment.
In 2008, a collection agency sued Cook over $2,700 in unpaid credit card bills along with about $1,000 in fees and interest. A judge entered an order later that year for the full amount after Cook failed to appear in court.
A federal judge, after reviewing Cook's finances, recently appointed a public defender to represent him.