George Sheldon boasted a can-do résumé when he took the helm of Illinois’ scandal-ridden child welfare agency in 2015 and proposed sweeping reforms.
Two years later, the director of Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services is the subject of an inspector general’s ethics probe and tangled in allegations that a top Cook County aide misused her authority. His agency also is facing another crisis, roiled by the death of 16-month-old Semaj Crosby in Joliet after DCFS opened and closed four investigations into alleged neglect in her home.
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Now Sheldon is contemplating an exit, considering a recruitment effort from Our Kids, a large Florida nonprofit that recently lost three of its top administrators following the suicides of youths in the agency’s care.
After the Chicago Tribune described findings of its own investigation into DCFS contracts, Sheldon defended his actions but acknowledged that he had belatedly made disclosures about ties to individuals benefiting from those contracts.
The change of leadership could be another setback for DCFS, which had seven directors or acting directors in the three years before Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Sheldon in February 2015.
“I can’t not give serious consideration to Florida. It’s home, but I also feel an obligation to Illinois,” Sheldon told the Tribune, adding that he expects to make a decision in the coming weeks.
Sheldon’s predecessor resigned after the Tribune’s 2014 “Harsh Treatment” investigation showed that juvenile wards were assaulted, raped and lured into prostitution at some of Illinois’ largest residential treatment centers.
I can’t not give serious consideration to Florida. It’s home, but I also feel an obligation to Illinois.”
Sheldon has blamed the frequent change of executive leadership for Illinois’ failures to protect young wards or support their families.
Rauner’s office issued a statement that did not address Sheldon’s potential departure but said that the governor requires all state agencies to follow the law and abide by “highest ethical standards. … We will review the [office of executive inspector general’s] findings and take any and all steps necessary to implement her recommendations.”
His Florida roots
Sheldon, who was managing partner of a Tallahassee lobbying and consultancy firm during the 1980s and 1990s, rose through Democratic Florida politics as a state representative, deputy attorney general and then secretary of the Department of Children & Families from 2008-11.
President Barack Obama then appointed him acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. Back in Florida in 2014, Sheldon lost a campaign for attorney general against incumbent Republican Pam Bondi.
Credited with bringing in tens of millions of new federal dollars to Illinois, Sheldon focused on reducing the number of youths in residential treatment centers, as well as shortening the length of time that young wards spend in state custody.
Sheldon’s plan to transform Illinois DCFS centered on cutting-edge technology that would help DCFS identify youths in danger of abuse and neglect and increase the efficiency of child protection investigators, according to his public statements. To accomplish that, he tapped a circle of Florida friends, former aides and lobbyists, records show.
In recent months, the Tribune has learned, Sheldon fell under a cloud of ethics probes by DCFS Inspector General Denise Kane and Illinois Executive Inspector General Maggie Hickey. Kane and Hickey declined to comment.
The details of those ongoing ethics probes in Illinois are not public. But a separate Tribune examination found that Sheldon awarded more than $1 million in computer contracts that benefited some of those Florida associates.
Sheldon said the contracts were enormously beneficial to the agency and argued that it was smart to tap Florida experts he trusted and admired from previous work.
“I came into a troubled department at best,” Sheldon told the Tribune. “It was apparent to me when I got in here that I needed some people who were knowledgeable and I could trust.”
In a five-page March 27 letter to Rauner, Sheldon in fact expressed frustration with Illinois union contracts that restrict the DCFS director’s ability to make personnel changes, as well as burdensome state procurement rules for contracts. Those are “significant systemic impediments that continue to slow reform,” Sheldon wrote.
In that letter and in his Tribune interview, Sheldon also criticized the inspector general for second-guessing his decisions. “I think you can have only one director at a time,” he told the Tribune.
The Tribune probe
The Tribune examined several contracts and hires by Sheldon and found ties stretching back to his campaigns for Florida office.
Under Sheldon, DCFS gave Florida firm Five Points Technology Group $811,000 worth of consulting contracts that paid Sheldon’s former campaign worker and aide Christopher Pantaleon at least $30,000 as a subcontractor, state contract records show. Sheldon and Pantaleon had owned two Florida homes together, land records show, and Pantaleon had worked for Sheldon’s political campaign and served as his Florida DCF spokesman, among other connections, records show.
I came into a troubled department at best. It was apparent to me when I got in here that I needed some people who were knowledgeable and I could trust.
George Sheldon, defending his hires to the Chicago Tribune
Sheldon belatedly disclosed the relationship to the state’s Conflict of Interest Committee, but still defended the hire. He told the Tribune that he regretted not immediately disclosing his ties to Pantaleon.
“To be honest with you I didn’t even think about the fact that Chris and I owned a house together,” Sheldon said by telephone. “It just didn’t cross my mind.”
Pantaleon could not be reached for comment.
In another case, Sheldon in September 2015 hired as his driver and confidential personal assistant a 25-year-old Florida man whose driver’s license was revoked following Tallahassee arrests for DUI and reckless driving, according to Florida court records and Illinois government reports. In that job, Igor Davidovich Anderson, who had previously worked as a military human resources officer and for a restaurant company, was expected not only to drive Sheldon but also stand in for him at meetings he could not attend.
A subsequent DCFS investigation also determined that Anderson falsely claimed to be working when he drove Sheldon to Saugatuck, Mich., for a vacation. Anderson was fired in February 2016 and forced to repay the state $1,326 for that holiday and other days when he billed DCFS but the agency found no evidence that he actually worked, records and interviews show.
Sheldon said of the hire: “I have kind of a history of trying to give young people an opportunity.”
Anderson did not respond to requests for comment.
Anderson was recommended to Sheldon by Anderson’s former boss Adam Corey, a Tallahassee lobbyist who co-owned lounges and had helped Sheldon with his political campaigns, according to interviews and government documents. Corey’s Tallahassee Hospitality Group had donated $1,166 to Sheldon’s campaign fund in 2014 and one of Corey’s restaurants, Versailles Lounge, hosted a Sheldon fundraiser that year.
In September 2015, six months after Sheldon was appointed DCFS director, Corey registered in Florida as a lobbyist for the computer firm Presidio Networked Solutions. Months later, in June 2016, Illinois gave Presidio two contracts totaling $1 million to work on DCFS computer systems.
A month later, Presidio boosted its payments to Corey’s lobbying firm, from $20,000 to $40,000 each half year to $70,000 to $90,000, according to Florida disclosure reports that list lobbyist compensation in ranges instead of exact dollar amounts.
Corey said his lobbying had no bearing on Presidio getting the Illinois contract.
“I represent Presidio in Florida, not Chicago. I did not facilitate any introduction that I am aware of between Presidio and George Sheldon,” Corey told the Tribune. “I wasn’t even aware of the contract until you told me. ... I think that you are looking for a smoking gun here and have to find a different one.”
Sheldon also said he first learned of the links between Corey and Presidio from the Tribune.
“I knew nothing about Presidio and to this day I’ve never talked to Adam about it,” Sheldon said.
Some of the other contracts Sheldon’s DCFS gave to people connected to his past were small.
Tallahassee consultant and journalist Gary Yordon had produced ads for Sheldon’s Florida political campaigns. At DCFS, Sheldon gave Yordon’s Zachary Group a $35,000 contract to make two web videos about drowning dangers and safe sleeping practices for infants — even though Illinois’ Central Management Services typically creates such public service announcements.
“The PSA was well-received,” Yordon told the Tribune. “I was hired because I am very good at what I do.”
Series of controversies
Other contracts were more far-reaching. In Florida, Sheldon worked closely with the Clearwater-based nonprofit called Eckerd Kids, which last year took in $169 million in government contracts to run child welfare and other programs in that state and others.
In Illinois, DCFS under Sheldon gave Eckerd a $375,000 contract to help develop a web-based program to pinpoint abuse and neglect investigations with the highest probability of serious injury or death to children.
In contract submissions filed as part of its Illinois DCFS contract, Eckerd touted the “remarkable” accomplishments of its predictive analytics method in Hillsborough County, where it won a $65 million annual state contract to oversee child welfare services there in 2012.
But the firm has been embroiled in a series of Florida controversies, according to published reports. In October, a court-appointed advocate filed a lawsuit alleging that Eckerd and a subcontractor negligently placing a minor brother and sister in the home of an accused sexual predator. Eckerd separately acknowledged last year that 43 children were forced to sleep in offices and other unlicensed locations because Eckerd had run out of foster beds — after initially telling Tallahassee media that 17 youth were sleeping in the offices.
A Tribune analysis of Florida child fatality records identified at least five Hillsborough County children who died while in Eckerd’s care in 2015 and 2016. In one case a foster mother now faces first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse charges.
One of Sheldon’s most important hires from Florida was Jacquetta “Jacqui” Colyer, who ran that state’s Miami-Dade and Monroe county child welfare office under Sheldon. She was DCFS Cook County regional administrator under Sheldon in Illinois.
Colyer resigned that post in 2011 after a state panel described management failures at the agency that contributed to the torture and death of 10-year-old Nubia Barahona. She had previously worked for the nonprofit Our Kids, the agency Sheldon is considering joining.
In a Tribune interview, Colyer said that she was given an oral reprimand in the Barahona case that was never documented and left the agency on her own accord to pursue other opportunities.
Inspector General Kane recommended in January that Colyer be disciplined “up to and including” firing for alleged incidents of abusing her authority, putting a worker in danger and falsifying information, according to government reports. The inspector general reports did not identify her by name, but the Tribune confirmed Colyer was the subject of the recommended discipline through other public records and interviews.
Colyer denied any wrongdoing and said the inspector general has been “less than fair” with her and other staffers brought up from Florida. Colyer said of the inspector general’s report, “The whole thing is not true.”
“Most of [Kane’s] work is very biased and totally out of context of what I did and why I did it,” Colyer said.
Sheldon told the Tribune he supported Colyer in both cases and took no disciplinary action beyond counseling her about boundaries with employees.
Sheldon and other agency officials described Colyer as a committed, no-nonsense manager who has ruffled the feathers of her staff as she pushes to reform what they call an entrenched bureaucracy.
According to the inspector general reports, Colyer allegedly was “continually questioning” veteran supervisor Reginald King about his medical condition after he took time off when he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in 2015.
Colyer allegedly contacted King and his family regularly and showed up uninvited at his hospital and even suggested she would wait outside his home, according to the report. King believed she thought he was exaggerating his condition.
“She didn’t believe that he was sick,” said King’s son Tory Scullark to the Tribune. “Within 30 days of his diagnosis, he passed. He was dying and she was harassing him.”
Colyer also accused King of failing to report death investigations when in fact she was at fault, the inspector general reported. Colyer “misrepresented” facts and “engaged in offensive and insensitive conduct,” the inspector general concluded.
Colyer denied the allegations.
Firing back at inspector
“I showed up to the hospital to take him a card,” Colyer told the Tribune. “All I was trying to do was show my concern to one of my fellow employees. Anybody who knows me knows how I care about people.”
In the second case, Colyer ignored the recommendations of agency workers when she supported a family’s efforts to keep custody of their daughter — despite a record of violence, mental health problems and prior child abuse allegations in the home, according to the inspector general’s report and government records.
When a juvenile court judge rejected that proposal, the girl’s father made threats to the DCFS supervisor in the case, according to the inspector general’s report and other government records.
Most of [the inspector general’s] work is very biased and totally out of context of what I did and why I did it,”
Jacquetta ‘Jacqui’ Colyer, brought in by Sheldon to work for Illinois child welfare agency
Marcellus Jones — who records show had a history of severe mental illness and had convictions for attempted murder, domestic violence and three separate cases of felony aggravated assault — stormed out of the Cook County juvenile courtroom and threatened to kill the investigator’s daughter, according to a sheriff’s police report and DCFS records. The girl’s mother, Demetrius Miller-Jones, jumped out at that supervisor from the bushes outside the court building and cursed at her, the government records show.
Miller-Jones said she and Jones deny all statements in government reports about the confrontation.
The terrified DCFS supervisor asked to be taken off the case, records show.
Before supporting the parents’ efforts, Colyer “chose not to read” the voluminous case reports and did not confer with her agency investigators on the case. Instead, “she chose to rely only on the mother’s self-reports,” many of which were riddled with falsehoods, the inspector general’s report said.
Colyer “likely fueled the existing tension between the family and the placement team, and gave the family unrealistic expectations that she, and not the judge, was the arbiter of facts,” the inspector general alleged. Colyer “acted with reckless disregard for the safety of her staff and created an unsafe work environment.”
Colyer scoffed at the inspector general’s criticism, reiterating that she did nothing wrong. Colyer said that the caseworkers spurned her efforts to contact them and rejected her input because “I was an outsider.”
Defending a subordinate
Sheldon defended Colyer, telling the Tribune: “Jacqui is aggressive and that’s what I was looking for, and she gets involved in individual cases. ... I think she was acting in good faith.”
At Our Kids, the Florida nonprofit’s leaders expressed enthusiasm for Sheldon at a board meeting, calling him a “dream candidate.” The board unanimously gave board chairman Keith Ward the authority to negotiate terms of a contract and the timing with Sheldon.
Ward said he had reached out several times to Sheldon to gauge his interest in becoming that organization’s next president and CEO.
“He wants to come home. … We’re very fortunate,” Ward told the board. “He’s just No. 1 on anybody’s list.”
While the offer is not a done deal, Ward said, Sheldon planned to meet with him in Florida, and the board could approve his hiring by May 15.
State Sen. Julie A. Morrison of Deerfield, Ill., said DCFS would be hurt by more top management upheaval, which “devastates any possibility of getting this really troubled agency on track.”
ACLU of Illinois legal director Ben Wolf said the turmoil could make the director’s job hard to fill.
“There are two things that make this a particularly difficult job right now,” Wolf added. “The agency’s problems are very profound ... and the budget impasse and political paralysis that caused it are putting enormous pressure on the child welfare system and all of the other human services in Illinois.”
The Chicago Tribune’s Monique Garcia contributed from Springfield, Ill.