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Did The Cook County Land Bank Allow An Ethics Violation?

CHICAGO (CBS)--Cook County's ethics ordinance says employees should avoid even the appearance of impropriety, but a conflict of interest brewing at a Cook County agency that sells homes at low prices to low-income buyers is raising eyebrows.

That's because a recent homebuyer works for that agency, the Cook County Land Bank.

Some see vacant, foreclosed properties as eyesores, but the Cook County Land Bank sees them as affordable future homes for first-time buyers in predominantly black neighborhoods. The county acquires the properties, erases liens and back-taxes and then sells them at below-market prices.

The discounted pricing helps the homeowner build equity.

A Land Bank-owned property in Oak Lawn recently sold for $147,000--to the agency's executive assistant, Natasha Cornog.

Natasha Cornog

Cook County Board Commissioner Richard Boykin described the sale as illegal, although there's no city ordinance in the books that directly addresses whether employees can buy properties.

Chicago's regulations give the executive staff of the agency the sole authority to make such decisions.

"They set the price for them and then they have somebody who works at the Land Bank purchase that," Boykin said. "It's totally wrong--it's insider-trading at its worst and it shouldn't be allowed."

Richard Boykin

Executive Director of the Land Bank, Rob Rose, said he gave the green light for Cornog to purchase the home after it had sat on the market for 60 days without being sold. He also said he has approval from the state's attorney's office.

"As I've had a chance to look back on it and reflect as we've been having these discussions, I do understand where the optics problem comes in," Rose said. "As a result, we will be expanding our policy to exclude Land Bank employees from being able to purchase homes."

Rob Rose
Executive Director of the Land Bank

Boykin said he's going to ask the Inspector General to take a "real hard look at this."

He also said he might consider drafting an ordinance to prohibit inside sales of homes offered for sale through the program.

Rose said an ordinance is unnecessary, and said the Land Bank planned to expand their new rule to prohibit even the family members of employees from buying homes through the program.

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