You've heard it before: a private business hiring friends and family.
But when that business is a non-profit agency funded by tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, should the director be able to hire almost his entire family?
Current and former employees of the Pilsen Wellness Center told FOX Chicago News the payroll of the mental health services agency is packed with at least a dozen family members of its longtime Executive Director, Francisco Cisneros.
According to the employees and internal agency documents, Cisneros's wife, mother, son, three brothers, four sisters and two nieces all have part time or fulltime jobs at the Pilsen Wellness Center.
"I don't call that nepotism," said William Zieske, an attorney representing the agency. "I'm telling you nepotism does not exist here. And nepotism is defined as favoritism toward family members in hiring and firing."
But numerous current and former employees told FOX Chicago News Cisneros' message is: Don't mess with the family.
Leticia Sustaita, a former supervisor at the agency's AIDS program, said she tried to avoid conflicts with Cisneros' wife, grant writer Teresa Bentley.
"She's the boss's wife," Sustaita said. "So if you're going to argue with her you're in a very uncomfortable place and out of the agency."
"(Family members) who didn't have the background were getting paid more than people who were working there and had the degrees and had the certifications," said another former employee who wished to remain unidentified.
"A large number of family members are appropriately employed by Pilsen Wellness Center," the agency said in a statement. "Each has the linguistic and cultural competency required for their position, and the requisite education and certifications."
In 2008, a special audit ordered by Illinois state lawmakers found nearly a third of the agency's employees did not have the proper paperwork for their job qualifications. It didn't say whether any of those employees were family members.The audit also found a relative of Cisneros got a big pay raise just six days after being hired.
Attorney Zieske said those problems have been addressed and resolved by the agency's board.
It isn't just Cisneros' family landing jobs at the agency. The college-age son and daughter of Illinois State Senator Martin Sandoval are also working at the Pilsen Wellness Center. Sandoval has been among a handful of key Latino lawmakers who have helped steer state funding to the center.
"I think the bigger story would be if my kids were working for the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois or some big state agency," said Sandoval, who denied using his clout to help his children get jobs. "I'm going to applaud my kids for deciding they want to give back to the community."
Sandoval said he is surprised to learn of the large number of Cisneros family members working at the agency. "It's always concerning. It's a big perception issue," Sandoval said.
The center's attorney believes many of the complaints stem from employee cutbacks due to state funding shortages, which he said have resulted in the loss of 20 jobs since June, 2009.
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