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A mysterious choice to lead Illinois DCFS

Ethical concerns cloud nominee; Senate should demand better

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
Arthur Bishop: Gov. Quinn's nominee to lead DCFS pleaded guilty in 1995 to taking more than $9,000 from mental health patients.

Arthur Bishop, who is Gov. Pat Quinn’s choice to lead the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, has been in the job only a few weeks.

He runs a far-flung agency whose caseworkers make decisions that affect the lives of thousands of abused and neglected children. An agency that doles out millions of dollars in contracts. An agency that saw its director quit in 2011 under a cloud of suspicion about insider grant-dealing.

It is unconscionable to have the appointment of a new DCFS director clouded by ethical concerns related to the major responsibilities he will face. But that’s what Quinn has set up with the appointment of Bishop.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Monday that Bishop, 61, pleaded guilty in 1995 to taking more than $9,000 from patients at the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Community Mental Health Center and not turning the money over to the center.

A former director of the center told the newspaper that Bishop took the money from people who had been convicted of drunken driving and led them to wrongly believe the center had a program to help them get their driver’s licenses back.

A felony theft charge was pending when DCFS hired Bishop in 1995. He fought the case for more than 2 years, then pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge.

The Sun-Times also reported that a paternity case was filed against Bishop in 2003, when he was a deputy director at DCFS.

The Quinn administration is standing by Bishop.

“This happened 21 years ago, and he disputes all of the facts that were represented,” DCFS spokeswoman Karen Hawkins told us. “For him, it became about sparing his family this lengthy criminal proceeding and going on to have this storied 20-year career in child welfare and services. Does that one disputed act define who he is and his ability to lead the department? We say no, absolutely not.”

The Illinois Senate might have something else to say.

Bishop’s appointment requires Senate confirmation. The senators have a lot of ground to cover here. Now, they have examined Bishop in the past. In 2010, when he was nominated to be director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Bishop provided a written statement to the Senate, claiming he had been falsely accused in the theft case, the Sun-Times said.

We don’t lay the DCFS appointment controversy on Bishop. He may have a case to make on what happened many years ago. He may have been nothing but ethical in recent years.

But we do lay this on Quinn. Governor, did you really find the best person for such a highly sensitive job? Someone beyond question? Because DCFS has a vulnerable clientele and a history of political abuse:

DCFS Director Erwin McEwen abruptly resigned in 2011. The agency’s inspector general and the state executive inspector general later reported that a politically connected contractor linked to McEwen had received millions of dollars from DCFS and other state agencies for work that couldn’t be substantiated.

State ethics inspectors later said the contracting scheme cost taxpayers at least $18 million. McEwen refused to cooperate with inspectors.

In 2005, Bamani Obadele resigned as DCFS deputy director after an investigation by the agency’s inspector general found he had profited from state contracts. Obadele pleaded guilty in 2010 to a federal fraud charge. He admitted he had prodded DCFS vendors and contractors to purchase products from a company he owned and subcontract work to another company linked to him.

In 2011, Quinn made a smart move, tapping the enormously respected child welfare veteran Richard Calica to succeed McEwen. Calica questioned DCFS from top to bottom, with one priority: improving the lives of abused and neglected kids.

Calica died last year, and chief of staff Denise Gonzales took over as acting director. It’s not clear why Quinn didn’t make her permanent. What is clear is that Quinn’s administration made a quick decision on Bishop rather than do what it should have: Conduct a search for the best child welfare expert in the country.

Senators, don’t rubber-stamp this nomination. Press the governor to find the best of the best.

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