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I-Team: Cook County taxpayers funded $20 million secret warehouse

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Cook County spent millions to retool a Homeland Security agency that was once raked by scandal and corruption.

"The core mission is to protect against, recover, and respond to all disasters," said Michael Masters of Cook County Homeland Security.

Inside a warehouse at a location in the south suburbs that we agreed not to reveal, Cook County is amassing taxpayer-funded equipment for disaster response.

ABC7's Chuck Goudie asked: "Give me an idea, what type of incident, where would Cook County Homeland Security be a first responder, what type of incident?"

"No, none whatsoever. Our job is really administrative and logistics support," said Masters.

Harvard-educated lawyer Michael Masters walked the I-Team through the county's new homeland security supply depot - filled with gas cans, giant water pumps, emergency lighting kits and former military Humvees, repainted and repurposed by the county.

Goudie asked Masters: "What are these?"

"These are actually shelter systems," said Masters.

"You haven't needed these yet for anything?" asked Goudie.

"Thankfully we haven't needed them, we plan for the worst, and we hope for the best," Masters said.

"New leadership is sorely needed," said Toni Preckwinkle, who was Cook County Board president in 2011.

In 2011, the county tapped Masters - an ex-marine - to reform homeland security after series of scandals under the previous administration that included steering federal disaster money to pay for parties, among other questionable things.

Under his leadership, counter-terror training, body armor and other police gear has already been distributed to suburban first responders and the county's three rapid response SWAT teams.

Nearly $20 million in federal funds have been spent to reboot the department, including:

  • A fleet of emergency vehicles, a rescue boat, a brand new mini-emergency room on wheels; all through MABAS Illinois, a mutual aid coalition.
  • Contributions to an air wing; helicopters hangared at Winthrop Harbor near the Wisconsin line
  • Helmets and shields
  • New office chairs and office supplies
  • A hand-held siren
  • "Moulage" or makeup kits, used to simulate blood and broken bones during emergency drills

  • Giveaway tokens known as challenge coins, a traditional law enforcement handout for high-achieving first responders. One was handed out yesterday to a suburban fire chief for extraordinary efforts during last month's flooding.

"All of the purchases are checked against FEMA's approved equipment list, the taxpayer owns it, they are allowed to have it, and maintain stewardship with it," said Masters.

"I think as America's grinding to a halt, because our finances are so bad, this is something that should come under scrutiny," said Rey Lopez-Calderon, of Common Cause Illinois.

Watchdogs say crisis responders are just finding ways to spend the grants so funding isn't cut. This recent Senate report questions whether taxpayers are "subsidizing the purchase of low priority items" in the name of homeland security.

"It's like you've got a catalog and you've got a credit card and it's ok, I better spend this now or else I don't get it again," said Lopez-Calderon.

Cook County officials say recent flooding proved homeland security dollars and countywide coordination are necessary.

"We think we're leveraging the taxpayer's dollars pretty well for the response we're able to assist with," said Masters.

Cook County's homeland security and emergency management officials are breaking ground on a brand new state-of-the-art facility in a couple of weeks.

Director Masters says the county is "investing in tools, not toys." They are also investing in people - 30 staffers now, but budgeted for 42. The department may handle more flood than terror attacks, but Masters says they are preparing to be ready for the kind of attack that happened in Boston.

(Copyright ©2014 WLS-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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