Jim Dey: Top UI Springfield official caught in illegal hiring web

Jim Dey: Top UI Springfield official caught in illegal hiring web

Hear more from Dey Monday at 10 on WDWS.

A top-ranking official a the University of Illinois' Springfield campus was identified as among the wrongdoers in a court-ordered investigation of the illegal state patronage hiring scandal that occurred from 2009-14 under former Gov. Pat Quinn.

The voluminous report, prepared by independent monitor Noelle Brennan, identified Ryan Croke, a former Quinn chief and assistant chief of staff, as being among a handful of top people in the governor's office who pressured officials at the Illinois Department of Transportation to hire clouted job applicants "with little to no regard for actual hiring need or whether the candidate was qualified to fill the stated duties of the job."

When interviewed by lawyers Aug. 11, 2016, Croke, a 2005 University of Illinois graduate, denied any wrongdoing.

The report states that he acknowledged making recommendations for favored job-seekers but said he never "applied pressure or forced a specific candidate upon an agency."

Brennan charged that the denials by Croke and others were "not credible."

"There are numerous examples of the governor's office sending candidates and directing the agency to conduct an interview, ... check the status of the candidates, ...and expressing frustration when agencies did not quickly set up interviews," Brennan's report states.

"Moreover, senior IDOT employees Ann Schneider, Matt Hughes and Mike Woods all testified that it was difficult to refuse candidates sent by the governor's office," the report states.

UI Springfield announced in June 2015 that Croke, who is paid $85,000 a year, was the school's new associate chancellor for public affairs and chief of staff to UIS Chancellor Susan Koch.

A university announcement said that his other duties included leading government relations efforts and supervising the university's police department.

UI spokesman Thomas Hardy said President Timothy Killeen "early (last) week directed appropriate personnel in his office to conduct a careful and thorough review of the outside monitor's 89-page report, and they are in the midst of doing so."

"Beyond that, our practice is not to comment on personnel matters," Hardy said.

Another UI official who worked for Quinn also was named in the report.

Lindsay Hansen Anderson was Quinn's legislative counsel and legal adviser from 2009-13. Anderson joined the UI as executive director of the university-wide Office of Government Relations in March 2016 and is paid $173,400 a year.

Anderson was interviewed twice by investigators, Feb. 10 and 13 in 2016.

She, too, was implicated in the illegal hiring conspiracy, although her name does not come up as often's as Croke's does.

In addition to denying wrongdoing in his interview with investigators, Croke last week reiterated his denial.

He told the Associated Press he would "respectfully disagree" with the report's conclusions and paid tribute to his former boss' unyielding fidelity to honest government.

Gov. Quinn "wanted for everybody working for him to do the right thing all the time. And that's what I tried to do every day as chief of staff. When you are managing a government the size of the state of Illinois, it is inevitable that people will make mistakes. And those mistakes have to be corrected. And they were," Croke said.

The report, however, paints a different picture altogether and backs it up with emails and internal documents that reveal widespread violations of the mandatory merit-hiring rules that apply to the vast majority of positions in state government.

A 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made patronage hiring illegal in Illinois. Only a handful of top policy-making positions in state government can be filled by political appointment. The rest must be filled on the basis of merits and open to all comers.

The report demonstrates, however, that Gov. Quinn was eager to get as many political loyalists on the state payroll as possible, no matter what the rules.

To get around merit hiring at IDOT, the administration created phony "staff assistant" positions officials filled by political appointment. Later, many of those political hires were transferred into legitimate merit-hire positions through a phony interview process.

After the hiring scandal broke during the 2014 election year, the staff assistant post was abolished.

Some staff assistants were fired by Gov. Quinn because they had been illegally hired. Other former staff assistants remain on the job because they had been illegitimately transferred to legitimate merit-hiring positions.

Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has vowed to rid the state payroll of patronage hires, recently asked Judge Schenkier to determine whether the former staff assistants still on the payroll are subject to dismissal because they were illegally hired or whether, despite the circumstances of their hiring, they are protected by union contract.

The Brennan report indicated that 154 staff assistants were brought onto the IDOT payroll alone. This past week, Magistrate Schenkier directed Brennan to examine, along with Gov. Bruce Rauner's representatives, hiring across state government and report back to him by July 31.

Croke's name comes up repeatedly in Brennan's report, pressing IDOT either by email or phone to hire politically connected job seekers. He's also identified as the creator of "a resume database that could be shared and accessed by others" and a "SharePoint database" that was "used to share resumes with select Personnel Liaisons in various agencies."

"By the time of our investigation, the SharePoint database had been deleted and was no longer accessible," the report states.

The political job-seekers included those sponsored by elected officials, including spouses and children, and campaign workers either looking for a job or a raise. Among those sponsoring these applicants were House Speaker Michael Madigan, the offices of Senate President John Cullerton and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and various Democratic members of the House and Senate.

The governor's staff not only sent names of people to hire, it also vetoed IDOT's plan to hire more qualified applicants who went through the interview process.

In March 2013, a senior IDOT manager asked Quinn assistant Sean O'Shea for permission to fill a top position with a non-clouted candidate.

"No, the person I sent you," O'Shea angrily replied.

Croke helped put unidentified Staff Assistant 12, who formerly had worked for an insurance company, on the IDOT payroll. She had clout because her "husband was the Quinn's deputy fiscal director." SA 12 was initially put in a summer tech position in 2011, "even though these positions generally serve as internships and training opportunities for college students." She was later transferred into the phony staff assistant post.

Frequently, job-seekers would identify Quinn aides as references on the resumes submitted to IDOT on their behalf. That's what SA 22 did. His background was in banking and medical transport, but SA 22 was assigned duties "attending, scribing or facilitating meetings" and preparing and editing reports.

"SA 22's performances were marked as unsatisfactory; issues with his 'technical abilities, team spirit, work quality and timeliness' were highlighted," the report states.

The Brennan report is replete with interventions by Croke and others on behalf of clouted employees. That sometimes left the recipients of the pressure at a loss as to whom they were being sent and why.

One IDOT official was perplexed by the job candidacy of Candidate 31, who had worked as a general manager of a restaurant.

"Who is he?" the IDOT official asked

"'Croke's reply was simply, "JD plus Lou." The initials and first name correlate to John DeLassandro, a top Quinn aide, and Lou Bertuca, a former Quinn campaign manager.

Candidate 31 didn't get hired at IDOT. But he did land a $55,000 a year job at the state's Department of Central Management Services.

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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