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What's going on with the Peoria County auditor? Here are the facts behind the dispute

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas, left, and Peoria County State's Attorney Jodi Hoos, photographed following interviews at WCBU.

Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas has officially begun 2022 with an office of one: herself.

Thomas is suing the Peoria County Board in civil court, alleging the group acted illegally in impeding her statutory powers when it voted in October to reduce her office funding to cover Thomas’ salary alone.

State’s Attorney Jodi Hoos has alleged Thomas “mismanaged” her office, and that the board had no other choice but to use its budgetary power to “turn off the faucet.”

In this report, WCBU seeks to distill the complicated case down to the basic facts.

Over the last month WCBU has reviewed hundreds of pages of expense reports, credit card statements, email threads and court documents. Some documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, while others were obtained through interviews.

WCBU sat down with both Thomas and Hoos in person. Through a spokesperson, County Board Chairman Andrew Rand declined to be interviewed.

For full disclosure, Thomas is a member of WCBU's Community Advisory Board.

‘Rebuilding’ an office

In the state of Illinois, residents can choose to elect county auditors to serve as independent financial watchdogs.

Publicly elected auditors and their staff members are employees of the county in which they serve, but they have their own separate office in which they investigate potential fraud, waste and abuse in county spending.

Read the Illinois statute on elected auditors

Not every county in Illinois has an auditor. In fact, of the state's 102 counties, only 17 have current elected auditors.

Peoria County's office dates back to 1919. The late county clerk Steve Sonnemaker served from 1986 to 2006. Carol VanWinkle followed, serving two full terms between 2007 and 2016.

VanWinkle resigned from her post shortly after being elected for a third term. She cited the county board slashing her budget down to an office of two, including herself.

Auditor's Resignation Follows Drastic Cuts to Peoria County Budget

The Peoria County Board attempted to remove the elected auditor's office through a ballot referendum in 2018, but by a margin of just 19 votes, voters kept the office. Later that year, voters elected Thomas, who became the first Black person – and the youngest woman – elected to a countywide seat.

At first Thomas said she had a budget of around $187,000 and one employee. She petitioned for more money, and with a budget just above $250,000, Thomas was able to employ two full-time employees.

The team worked together to perform internal audits on county spending and review thousands of monthly claims. The office also approved payments to vendors, verified vendor credentials and set up new vendors.

“There’s thousands of claims that we pay out every week,” she said. “It wasn’t something we were able to do with the staff I had. And it’s something that’s impossible to do now with just myself.”

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas poses for a photo after an interview at WCBU.

Thomas told WCBU she spent her first couple years in office “rebuilding” – literally and figuratively.

Located in the basement of the Peoria County Courthouse, Thomas ordered picture frames to display photographs of herself, Sonnemaker and VanWinkle. (She told WCBU she couldn’t find pictures of auditors before Sonnemaker, but she’d like to have them framed, too.)

She purchased office supplies, including a Keurig coffee machine and an industrial heater.

Thomas also invested in training for herself and her staff. The team collectively attended six conferences from 2018 to 2019, including three in Illinois, one in Dallas, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Los Angeles, according to WCBU’s review of expense reports.

Thomas said she and her staff put the knowledge and skills they learned at the conferences to use; her two staffers would perform preliminary audits while Thomas performed a final audit. Thomas said her team has caught instances of improper spending.

In early 2021, Thomas' staff dwindled to one after a longtime county employee left the office.

Though her 2021 budget was about $14,000 less than what it was 2020, Thomas said she was able to fill the vacancy with two new people, bringing her staff to a total of three with more evenly distributed salaries.

But by hiring two more staffers, Hoos claimed Thomas’ projected budget was going to be over by 10%, once benefits were accounted for. Thomas maintained she was not over budget.

In October 2021, following several contentious public meetings, the county board voted to remove the funding for salaries other than Thomas' own.

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Peoria County Government
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YouTube
Peoria County board chairman Andrew Rand, left, speaks during the Sept. 9 meeting as county clerk Rachael Parker and county administrator Scott Sorrel listen.

Spending, leadership called into question

Last year, State's Attorney Jodi Hoos publicly alleged Thomas had "mismanaged" her office.

In a January interview with WCBU, Hoos stood by that statement, citing purchases Thomas made using county funds, as well as instances in which Hoos believes Thomas acted inappropriately in her position.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, WCBU obtained and reviewed expense reports and credit card statements associated with the auditor's office going back to 2018.

The returned results included receipts and statements related to several of the items Hoos claims were inappropriate uses of county funds.

For example, these are some of the charges Hoos takes issue with:

  • $4,800 on redoing a logo
  • $300 on a heater
  • $330 on cake pops
  • $75 on wristbands
  • $500 on Christmas decorations
  • $400 on a Keurig coffee machine and K-cup organizing shelf
  • $1,200 on framed portraits of Thomas, VanWinkle and Sonnemaker
  • $1,000 on a public relations firm
  • $600 on Christmas cards over two years
  • $1,300 on a leather recliner (the chair was returned shortly after purchase)

Hoos said Thomas’ spending wasn’t the only “red flag,” pointing to the following:

  • A late payment approval for a county vendor (a 911 dispatcher; WCBU confirmed this through a review of emails Hoos provided)
  • Thomas changing the locks on the office
  • Thomas not using the “Timeforce” system the county uses to clock hours. (Thomas ceased using the system following a dispute over the circumstances around the way in which her long-term employee left the office in 2021. Hoos maintains the employee took appropriate steps to retire; Thomas says she terminated the employee.)

“This was not one issue overnight,” Hoos said. “It was a drip, drip, drip, drip. … Several members of the county board tried to work with the auditor to fix these issues. I tried to give her legal advice. All of that to no avail. So at some point, the county shuts off the faucet. And that’s where we are.”

Jodi Hoos
Peoria Police
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Peoria County State's Attorney Jodi Hoos addresses the media at a press conference in June 2021.

Thomas told WCBU that every piece of her spending has had a clear and sole benefit to the office.

The wristbands and cake pops were for the office’s War Memorial brick engraving event, she said. The recliner was purchased for the office, but immediately returned, she said. (Thomas noted the sheriff's office has a similar chair.)

Some purchases were misrepresented by Hoos, Thomas alleged.

For example, Thomas said she did not spend $4,800 redoing her logo. She said she paid a local artist a couple hundred dollars to do her logo; the remaining money was spent on the design and management of her website. (WCBU confirmed this through a review of the receipts.)

Regardless of how she spends her funds, Thomas says the elected auditor – just like any other elected official – is in control of their budget. She criticized Hoos and the county board for creating a "distraction."

"This attack right here ... it's personal. It's personal. But it stems from the fact that they don't want this office to exist," she said. "No one wants to be held accountable. These people think they're above the law. They sit high and look low ... But my job is to keep them all accountable. And no one's above the law."

Thomas acknowledged the public relations firm charge, which Hoos flagged as a potential issue of campaign finance.

Thomas told WCBU she believed hiring the firm was a justifiable expense on behalf of herself and her employees, who had no formal media training and were being put in a position in which they had to defend their jobs during public county board meetings.

Additionally, she said she did not feel comfortable seeking advice from the county's media relations staffer, since that person works directly with county board members.

"I have not violated any ... purchase policies. I have not violated any laws," Thomas said. "And I have not misused or abused any finances. Everything that I have purchased has been for the office."

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Tim Shelley
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WCBU
Peoria County Auditor Jessica Thomas at an October 2021 Peoria County Board meeting.

Through a spokesperson, county board chairman Andrew Rand declined an interview request.

Speaking on behalf of the board, Hoos said the October decision to remove Thomas’ funding was not made in haste.

“They cut a significant amount from an elected officials’ budget. They’re not gonna take that lightly. They’re gonna do it because they have to,” she said. “This wasn’t an issue of eliminating an office. This was an issue of bringing an elected office holder back into where she needs to be with the county.”

All three individuals employed by Thomas in December were offered union jobs elsewhere in the county for equal pay and benefits. Of the three, two accepted the county board’s offer.

Pending litigation

Thomas' lawsuit names Hoos, Rand and board vice chairman Jim Fennell as defendants.

The crux of the suit lands on two major sticking points:

  • Thomas claims the county board acted in violation of state law in changing the way certain payments were processed without her knowledge or permission.
  • Thomas claims that the board illegally misused its budgetary authority to violate state law in stripping the auditor's office of funds.

Thomas said that just because Hoos doesn't agree with how Thomas has spent money, that doesn't give the State's Attorney the authority to advise the county board to "break the law" by removing funding necessary to perform the duties of the auditor's office.
She pointed to a 1991 court opinion in which Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris ruled that county boards in Illinois could not "use its budgetary authority to circumvent the internal control for the auditor over his or her office." That case was coincidentally in Peoria County, too.

"Any law that is being broken is not being broken by me," Thomas said. "If it was, she would be taking me to court. ... This is an attorney by trade who is trying to argue her case in the court of public opinion."

Hoos says she doesn't think Thomas has a case. She has criticized Thomas for ignoring state statute that requires the appointment of counsel at no cost to the county. Instead, she hired her own attorney, who she wants the county to pay for.

Thomas said Hoos is misrepresenting what happened; on December 22, a 10th Circuit Court judge awarded Thomas outside counsel, as there was no state's attorney's office nearby willing to represent the auditor's office.

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Kristin McHugh/WCBU
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In an effort to gain some outside perspective on this complicated case, WCBU spoke with William Crowley, longtime Winnebago County auditor. He has worked for the auditor's office since the early 90s.

Crowley told WCBU this case reminded him of a similar issue in McHenry County, where the publicly elected auditor disagreed with the county board chairman’s decision to appoint an inspector to duplicate the auditor’s work.

But Crowley said he’s never seen anything quite like what’s unfolding in Peoria County.

Acknowledging that he is biased toward fellow auditors, Crowley encouraged those following the case to read the Illinois statute that defines the duties of the elected auditor's office.

"The auditor has a specific role to play, and the auditor should be playing that role," he said. "You're not gonna all of a sudden go ahead and take away all the sheriff's deputies away from the sheriff, and give them to somebody else. That would be ridiculous."

Read the Illinois statute on elected auditors

The case is next set to appear before a Peoria County circuit court judge for a management conference on April 18. WCBU will continue following the lawsuit as it makes its way through court.

You can access the auditor’s expenditure reports from the county’s Accounts Payable system here.

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Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.