On June 16 in Orlando, when the Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) Awards are presented to some of the world’s finest journalists, five of the winners will owe part of their 2017 professional celebrity to once-prominent, perhaps now infamous Florida Democrat and child welfare executive, George Sheldon.
Chicago Tribune team reporters David Jackson, Gary Marx, Duaa Eldeib, Alicia Fabbre and Stacey Wescott were nominated in the category of Investigations Triggered by Breaking News, for “Semaj Crosby,” a months long probe into the murder of the 17-month old girl on April 27, 2017. Her death was ruled a homicide by asphyxia. The child’s body was found under a couch 30 hours after she was killed.
Sheldon headed up Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services when the toddler was murdered but resigned in June amid an ethics probe into questionable contracts awarded to Florida friends and former Florida business associates. The ethics probe was interwoven into the cases of Semaj and other children who died in DCFS care. The reporters’ stories showed that 11 DCFS investigations into Semaj’s home during a two-year period did not save her from tragedy.
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 from 2008-2011, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
President Barack Obama then appointed him acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, where he stayed until 2013.
Back in Florida in 2014, Sheldon lost a campaign for attorney general against incumbent Republican Pam Bondi.
After Sheldon resigned in May, he was heartily welcomed into a new job in Florida — some say, surprisingly — taking on virtually the same job he had in Illinois, at the private adoption and foster care agency, Our Kids Miami-Dade/Monroe.
See his letter of resignation from the Illinois agency here.
Nevertheless, criticism of Sheldon just before, but especially since he left Illinois has been scathing.
In a July report, Illinois Executive Inspector General Margaret Hickey criticized Sheldon for ignoring state ethics guidelines to sign off on a no-bid contract with a longtime Florida friend with whom Sheldon owns rental property. Sheldon also hired as his personal assistant and driver another Florida man who drove without a valid license following his failure to complete “DUI school.”
Hickey’s findings largely mirrored the Tribune team’s investigative work — disclosures about Sheldon’s conduct — but her report represented a stinging condemnation of his tenure at a child protection agency rocked by numerous deaths and pressure on investigators to close cases.
The inspector general found Sheldon “mismanaged” the agency when he hired on contract an assistant and driver, Igor Anderson, and improperly approved his work time when Anderson was not performing state duties. Anderson’s contract was later terminated, and he owed the state $1,326 for payments he shouldn’t have received, Hickey wrote.
“I’m very proud of our kids for the backbreaking work they did on this story,” said Owen Knightly, a retired editor who still lives in Chicago. “But, you know, we can never get rid of George Sheldon. He keeps finding a way to come back and haunt us.”