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Ethics Board fines Cook County official who ‘flagrantly’ disregarded nepotism ban; she must now fire her cousin as her top aide

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Tammy Wendt must fire her cousin from his chief of staff position in her office and pay the county $2,000 for violating rules against nepotism, the county’s Ethics Board has ruled.

The formal admonishment comes after Wendt hired her cousin Todd Thielmann as her top staffer, triggering an investigation from the ethics board tasked with fining employees who flout the ordinance governing best practices within their offices.

Wendt, a Democrat from Palos Heights who ousted a Republican incumbent in 2020, filed Monday to run for reelection to the tax appeals board and will face Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, in the June 28 primary. Neither Wendt nor Thielmann could be reached for comment.

Thomas Szromba, chair of the Ethics Board, wrote in a Thursday decision that Wendt disobeyed two provisions: a ban on hiring relatives such as first cousins, and a requirement to avoid such violations in order to maintain a “fiduciary duty” to the county. The latter infraction came about because Wendt was still employing her cousin as of last week and did not correct course after being given multiple notices about the nepotism ban — including from the ethics board, the other two commissioners on the Board of Review and media inquiries, Szromba wrote.

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“In her on-going violation the Ethics Code’s probation on employment of relatives, Wendt has not only violated her fiduciary duty owed to the County, but she has done so in a manner that flagrantly disregards the tenants of government accountability to the public and transparency,” Szromba wrote. “The Ethics Board finds this particularly troubling as it is clear that Wendt has long been aware of the violation and has taken no steps to rectify it.”

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Besides the Ethics Board ruling, the Cook County Office of the Independent Inspector General also investigated Thielmann’s hiring. The county watchdog found that Wendt violated the ethics ordinance and should remove her cousin from his post, according to a January report. The inspector general’s office did not publicly name Wendt, but the Ethics Board ruling confirmed she was the subject of the watchdog’s inquiry.

According to public records, Thielmann was hired in December 2020, immediately after his cousin took office, with a $135,000 salary and received a raise to $150,000 the next month.

Wendt has 30 days from the date of the Ethics Board decision to file a request for reconsideration.

In previous statements to the Tribune, Wendt — also an attorney who was on the defense team of Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago officer convicted of murder in the shooting of Laquan McDonald — has been unapologetic about her hiring decision.

“This (is) an attempt to silence me. ... I did not hire who was sent to me nor do I owe any political favors,” Wendt said in July 2021.

ayin@chicagotribune.com