Jim Dey: Investigation into illegal hiring under Quinn expanded

Jim Dey: Investigation into illegal hiring under Quinn expanded

Last week, a court-appointed outside monitor released a voluminous report that laid bare all the gory details surrounding five years of illegal patronage hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

But that report didn't close the book on the wide-ranging conspiracy to violate state hiring rules by top officials in former Gov. Pat Quinn's administration. Indeed, there could be more much forthcoming.

Why?

Federal Magistrate Sidney Schenkier on Monday signed an order directing the court-appointed monitor, Chicago lawyer Noelle Brennan, to conduct a wide-ranging examination of "all positions under the jurisdiction of" Gov. Bruce Rauner's office and file a "preliminary status report" of her findings by July 31.

The question behind all this is: If IDOT became a patronage dumping ground for politically connected job seekers under Quinn, what about the rest of the state's executive departments and bureaus?

Rauner's office worked with Brennan on the details, negotiating an "agreed order" authorizing the broad probe now underway. Rauner spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis explained the move by saying Rauner is working "closely with the special master to reform the corrupt hiring system" Quinn created and is "committed to correcting these issues in partnership with the court and the special master."

Brennan's job will be to identify top executive agency jobs that can be filled by political appointees and separating them from other jobs required to be filled through a merit hiring process.

Patronage hiring in Illinois has been illegal since the 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Rutan vs. the Republican Party of Illinois.

Cynthia Rutan, now deceased, was among a handful of state employees who alleged they were denied employment opportunities because of their political beliefs, that is they were not affiliated with the organization of Republican Gov. James Thompson.

Since winning that case, state hiring, with some exceptions, is required to be merit-based.

So-called "Rutan-covered" jobs, the vast majority in state government, are open to applicants who go through a hiring process open to all. A limited number of top policy-making posts can be filled by political appointees of the governor, the theory being that he is entitled to appoint top subordinates who carry out the policies of the state's top elected official.

The outside monitor's report, however, found that top aides acting on behalf of Gov. Quinn created phony Rutan-exempt positions called "staff assistants" and filled them with friends, family members and political supporters of Quinn, key Democratic legislators and other influential people.

Even though appointed to Rutan-exempt policy-making positions, the staff assistants did Rutan-covered works in violation of hiring rules. Later, many of the staff assistants were transferred to Rutan-covered jobs through a rigged hiring process.

Thirty-six of those staff assistants remain on the IDOT payroll, although Rauner's office is seeking legal guidance from Magistrate Schenkier about whether those illegally hired are entitled to job protections afforded them by a union contract.

All told, the state hired more than 150 so-called staff assistants, regardless of qualifications, in just the Transportation Department. In one case, a non-engineer was hired as an engineering assistant. In another, a non-lawyer was hired to a position that was to have been filled by a lawyer.

Working with top Rauner administration officials, special master Brennan has been ordered to "develop an exempt-list of all positions under the governor" that can be filled with political appointees. If the governor wishes to create "any other position as Rutan-exempt," his office is required to identify the positions and job classifications for the special master, who will determine the "appropriateness of the Rutan-exempt designation."

"The governor's office will identify all positions currently designated Rutan-exempt that will no longer be included on the new exempt list and will work with (Brennan) to develop a plan for reclassifying such positions as Rutan-covered," Schenkier said in his order.

Under the judge's guidelines, Brennan was directed to "establish a single unitary exempt list" and state "the procedures under which positions may be added to or removed from" the list.

This new arrangement would, at least theoretically, prevent a repeat of the Quinn formula by which his underlings simply created new positions — staff assistant — on their own authority and started filling them with clouted applicants.

Brennan also was directed to "make a recommendation for creating a process" to deal with individuals who were illegally hired and subsequently transferred into a legitimate position "without going through a competitive process."

It is unclear to what extent Quinn officials honeycombed state government with political hires in violation of the law. But it's hard to imagine that what happened at IDOT was limited to that department.

The IDOT scandal broke during the 2014 election year, prompting Quinn, then a candidate for re-election, to express outrage over the violation of hiring rules and initiate efforts to dismiss some of those in staff assistant positions.

At the same time, Rauner cited his concerns about the violations of law and said, if elected, he would work to bring them to an end. Two years later, that process remains uncompleted as the IDOT probe expands into new and uncharted territory.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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