Cook County ‘point man’ lacks rules, program

Cook County ‘point man’ lacks rules, program – Cook County, Illinois, Department of Public Health liaison Frank Barnes

Rupa Shenoy

In early June 1999, Cook County Board President John H. Stager gave a speech about his fight against prostate cancer. Loop lunch-goers filled the James R. Thompson Center Plaza in downtown Chicago as Stroger helped unveil a U.s. prostate cancer awareness stamp and pledged Cook County’s strong commitment to preventing the disease.

As part of the ensuing effort, the county’s Department of Public Health targeted south suburban African American communities to reach those at highest risk for prostate cancer: black men. And the county hired Frank Barnes, a longtime acquaintance of Stroger’s and a former employee of the Cook County Department of Building and Zoning, to be its public health liaison to churches in the area.

State Sen. Donne E. Trotter, a South Side Democrat who also oversees outreach efforts as the county’s minority director for public health, called Barnes the department’s “point man” on prostate cancer. “He has been very successful in helping us get in some of the churches in the south suburbs,” said Trotter.

But, after a six-month investigation, The Chicago Reporter found that Barnes can show little proof that he does what he is supposed to. County officials who should be able to answer questions about Barnes can’t–or won’t.

In October 2001, the Reporter received an anonymous tip that Barnes had a no-work position.

Barnes told the Reporter that his principal responsibility was to arrange prostate cancer screenings in south suburban black churches. He presented evidence of having organized nine screenings in three years, but has produced no literature or reports on his work or its progress. The Reporter asked leaders of more than 50 African American congregations in the south suburbs about Barnes. Two had heard of him, and one of them had worked with him to do prostate screenings.

While Barnes is one of the highest-paid employees in his department, he avoided answering questions about his formal experience in public health.

Barnes agreed to be interviewed only in the presence of Rendy Jones, communications director for the Cook County Bureau of Health Services, which includes the Public Health Department.

He said he works hard to communicate with church leaders. “I have a routine,” he said. “I come to the office, I go to the field, I check with churches, I meet with ministers. Sometimes it’s very difficult to see them on the first try. I have to sit there for hours and hours.”

Stroger declined to comment on Barnes or his job, according to Jack Beary, his press secretary.

The Cook County government has recently been beset by a series of financial problems. In January, FBI agents resurrected an investigation into people on the county payroll who did no work. Budget woes over the last several years have left the county’s forest preserve system with a deficit of between $10 and $17 million, and bond money raised to build a new domestic violence courthouse was spent elsewhere.

Cook County commissioners Jerry “Iceman” Butler, the chair of the county board’s Health and Hospitals committee, and Earlean Collins, who chairs the Public Health subcommittee, said they had never heard of Barnes.

“If he’s got a high paid position at Cook County Public Health, I probably ought to know him,” Butler said. “I’m surprised that you found as many [screenings] as you did.”

Collins said Stroger bypasses her subcommittee when he makes decisions on the Public Health Department, and never assigns it work. The subcommittee never meets, she said, and “doesn’t do anything.”

No Complaints

Barnes, 66, is an “intergovernmental/faith-based liaison” for the Public Health Department, according to his job description. The county budget shows he is paid $81,071 a year.

His duties include offering public health services to “faith-based organizations, particularly in providing outreach to their populations and assist[ing] other service unit directors in meeting program goals requiring community outreach,” according to the description. He is also responsible for meeting with elected officials to address public health concerns and for helping the department respond to emergencies.

“Well, that’s one of those catch-all titles–intergovernmental liaison,” said Butler. “That could be anything.”

But Barnes said he spends a normal workday talking to ministers on the phone or waiting to speak to them in person so he can arrange cancer screenings at their churches. “And that can take a while,” he said. “If you’ve ever tried to talk to a minister, you know what I’m talking about. Ministers like to be kept in contact with [so that they] know that you’re still thinking about them-even though you don’t have anything going at their church at the particular time.” He added that he targets “the larger churches, not the smaller ones,” mainly in the south suburbs.

After contacting ministers, Barnes said, he explains his program, then suggests a few dates for screenings. He checks to see if nurses are available before finalizing the arrangements.

“We have it on a Saturday or a Sunday,” he said. “We go out at 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning and we stay there all day until we finish. And I am there all day long with my team. Because I’m the one that set it up–my team didn’t set it up.”

Barnes acknowledged that he distributes no literature, pamphlets or fliers to tell people about his project. “Ministers don’t want anything in [their] hands,” he said.

Barnes declined a request to accompany him on one of his days in the field. He said that it “wouldn’t be a good idea.”

After repeated requests, Barnes provided a list of five ministers he had worked with. In three years, Barnes arranged nine screenings at their churches. Beary, Stroger’s press secretary, said the list represented a sampling of churches Barnes worked with, but Barnes would not provide an expanded list.

Contacted by the Reporter, four of these ministers-the Rev. Claude Porter of Proviso Missionary Baptist Church in Maywood, Bishop Robert R. Sanders of New First Church of God in Christ in Chicago Heights, Bishop William L. Jordan of St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church Cathedral in Harvey and Kenneth Franklin of Christ for Everyone Ministries in Ford Heights-said Barnes had arranged two screenings at each of their churches. Another, the Rev. Richard D. McCreary II, confirmed that Barnes arranged one screening at his New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Phoenix. Porter, Sanders and McCreary all said the exact same thing about him: “He did what he said he was going to do. We have no complaints.”

Jordan said Barnes approached him three years ago, and helped him screen 100 men at the 8,000-member St. Mark. He said he now speaks with Barnes four or five times a month. “This is a good program,” Jordan said. “It saves the lives of people who don’t have the money to see a doctor regularly. Frank Barnes has been a big help.”

The Reporter surveyed seven predominantly black south suburban churches with 1,000 or more members and another 50 with smaller congregations, based on lists provided by U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., whose district includes parts of the South Side and suburbs, and area ministers themselves.

Barnes had visited one, the 250-member Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago Heights. The church’s Rev. A. William Staten said he approached Barnes after talking with a Calvary member who had heard of him, and Barnes subsequentiy arranged a screening at the church.

“It was definitely a positive experience,” Staten said. “And it’s something that the community should take advantage of considering we pay taxes: We want to take advantage of it more.”

All the ministers said they were concerned about prostate cancer and believed churches are a logical place for outreach.

No Rules

The Reporter asked the Department of Public Health for all press releases, brochures and announcements on prostate cancer-related initiatives from the past six years.

David N. Carvalho, the department’s freedom of information officer, said that would place an “undue burden” on the Bureau of Health Services. But after what he called “diligent inquiry;” he provided four press releases and six fliers. None mention Barnes. Two announce events involving south suburban black churches– New Covenant Missionary Baptist in Phoenix, the Holy Ghost Deliverance Center in Chicago Heights and the Portland Street Church, whose address and phone number are not listed. No one answered repeated calls to Holy Ghost.

A Jan. 30, 2002, press release announced that 480 men were screened in 2001, surpassing the department’s goal by 50 percent.

But Public Health’s progress reports, which are available to the public, contradict these figures. They indicate that, in 1999, 2000 and 2001, the department set goals of screening 480, 321 and 300 men, respectively. The department fell short of its 1999 goal by screening 220 men, but in 2000 and 2001 met its target precisely, screening 321 and 300, respectively, according to the reports.

The department conducted the 2001 screenings at 14 different sites, according to the reports, which note two that took place in churches. The reports do not mention Barnes.

Barnes said he also worked with “aldermen and mayors,” but when asked for their names, he said, “I don’t know.”

He offered to provide a list at a later time. But when the Reporter followed up, Jones, the communications director for the Bureau of Health Services, said it was not available.

The Reporter asked Cook County for the name of Barnes’ program and its goals, objectives and reports.

“Frank Barnes has no ‘program,”‘ Carvalho wrote.

Eileen Brewer, special aide to Stroger, confirmed that Cook County had no documents detailing Barnes’ work–or any other project relating to faith-based outreach. The county does not maintain documents on the job descriptions or salaries of the nurses, or of anyone else, working with Barnes, she wrote.

Barnes explained that “there are no ground rules” to what he does and therefore no written goals or objectives. He also said he issues no reports.

Trotter initially said Stroger oversees Barnes’ work, but later said Barnes reports to the chief operating officer of Public Health, Dr. Karen Scott. While “everyone reports to President Stroger eventually,” Barnes reports to Scott, Jones said.

Trotter said he and Scott meet frequently to discuss the county’s minority health initiatives.

In a written statement, Trotter told the Reporter: “It would be incorrect to say that the prostate cancer project administered by Mr. Barnes is never discussed. His project, as are other priority initiatives … are routinely roundtable discussed and acted upon.

Trotter would not comment on any of the Reporter’s findings, saying he did not have enough information.

Stroger and Scott both declined repeated requests to comment.

People Person

Barnes joined Cook County Public Health in 1999. That year, the Illinois Cancer Registry estimated that 3,450 men in Cook County would be diagnosed with prostate cancer every year from 1998 to 2002. After skin cancer, prostate cancer was the leading cancer among African American men.

A native of the South Side, Barnes has been a Cook County employee since 1975. After working as a courthouse safety inspector for the Cook County Sheriffs Department and an administrative assistant for the Department of Building and Zoning, Barnes applied for the job at Public Health for a “better opportunity,” he said.

In 2000, the first year his salary came exclusively from the department, Barnes made $78,606. Only two others in the department earned more: the chief operating officer and the associate administrator. The position boosted his pay almost $13,000.

He said he has a personal interest in health. His father and sister died of cancer, and Barnes himself survived cancer. By arranging screenings in churches, he hoped to decrease the number of black men who haven’t been tested and raise the survival rates, said Barnes, an African American.

Barnes said he was also driven to community service. “I’m a people person. When you like people, you want to bring services to people. You don’t want anyone to go lacking in services.”

In its interview with Barnes and Jones, the Reporter asked what qualified him for the job.

“What qualifies him? I think he has credentials,” Jones said.

Barnes said he graduated from the University of Illinois, where he majored in business administration. He added that he “had executive training at Loop College, courses one, two and three. … What more do you want me to have?” Loop College is now known as Harold Washington City College.

Stroger alone appoints people to fill “every position” in the Department of Public Health, and no other county commissioners approve the appointments, Coffins said.

Asked if he knew Stroger, Barnes laughed. “Sure. So does everyone in Cook County.” He said he has known Stroger 30 or 40 years. He began to recount how they met when Jones interrupted.

“We’re not here to talk about President Stroger and who knows him,” she said.

Butler, the county commissioner, questioned Barnes’ credentials. “I don’t know the man, or where he gets the authority to do whatever he is doing.”

Barnes said he continues to set ambitious goals: “I want to involve every church in Cook County.”

Josh Drobnyk and Elizabeth Olsson helped research this article.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group