Jim Dey | For those with clout, employment rules differ

Jim Dey | For those with clout, employment rules differ

Given all the rules that bar governmental bodies in Illinois from hiring people based on their political connections, it's not as easy as it once was for the average Joe to get a job based strictly on clout.

But there are ways to get it done at all levels, as a report by the state's Executive Inspector General recently revealed. The 35-page document is an exhaustive examination of how Eric McKennie landed an $81,000-a-year position at the Chicago Transit Authority.

The report concluded that there is "little doubt" that McKennie was hired by the CTA because of his close personal relationship with state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, with whom he lives and to whom McKennie "holds himself out as being married."

Legislators, including Lightford, a member of Senate President John Cullerton's leadership team, have clout, and agencies like the CTA rely on those with influence to oversee generous appropriations. So when McKennie mentioned to the CTA's chief lobbyist that he was looking for work, the lobbyist tried to help him out by getting him a job at the CTA.

The curious goings-on at the CTA would still be hush-hush, but on Feb. 1, 2017, the inspector general's office received an anonymous tip that McKennie was hired as a diversity consultant "because of his wife's position as a state legislator."

Further, the tipster stated, "McKennie seemed to come and go as he pleased, so his hiring did not decrease the workload within the Diversity Department at all."

Here's the story laid out by the inspector general.

Just after leaving employment with the state — much more on that later — McKennie was looking for work.

Applicants seeking work at the CTA have to go through formal interviews, where they are scored by questioners. The process McKennie went through was much more informal.

An email sent by CTA's chief lobbyist, Gerald Nichols, included McKennie's resume and said simply, "This is the person we spoke about."

McKennie did have a conversation with two CTA supervisors, but the exchange was so low key that afterward, one participant asked the other, "Was that an interview?"

McKennie talked to investigators with the inspector general's office but suffered from severe memory lapses.

He said he could not recall applying for a specific position at the CTA, could not recall completing an application, could not recall whether he was interviewed and could not recall to whom he spoke in the process.

"He said he must have applied because he had a position," the report states.

There were three open positions in the diversity department, the highest paying of which was $67,000 a year.

McKennine was hired into a management position — project consultant diversity — created after he was brought on board, and was paid substantially more.

That's only part of the story.

After McKennie was hired, he was less than diligent about showing up for work. Records show he was employed by the CTA from November 2016 to March 2017.

It was difficult for investigators to piece together the hours McKennie worked because he rarely filled out required time sheets. But investigators said that out of a total of 77 working days, McKennie "used 168 hours of benefit time, which amounts to 21 days." Of those 21 days, there were "11 vacation days and two sick days."

For 21 of the 22 days McKennie was "reportedly at work," he did not put in the required 8.5 hours, a period that included a 30-minute lunch.

What's striking about the inspector general's report were the faulty memories not just of McKennie but most of those involved in his hiring.

Nonetheless, the CTA expressed outrage at the suggestion that it violated hiring rules to appease a political patron — Lightford — and indicated that no one would be disciplined for any errors of judgment.

A CTA lawyer said McKennie's hiring was appropriate and that his subsequent departure was the result of diligent managers concerned about McKennie's time-sheet problems.

One CTA manager was so outraged over questions asked of him by the inspector general that he said if he had known he was a "target" of the interview, "I would have terminated the interview and retained an attorney."

Here's the rest of the story.

McKennie was looking for a job because he lost his position as a "staff assistant" at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Readers may recall that the phony "staff assistant" positions were created by former aides to Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn to implement illegal patronage hiring at the agency.

It became quite a scandal after reports by the inspector general and a federal-court-appointed outside monitor outlined the depth of the hiring criminality at IDOT.

Many of those staff assistants, including McKennie, were subsequently forced out of their jobs.

So McKennie first got an illegal patronage job at IDOT, and then he improperly got another political job at the CTA.

McKennie isn't the only Lightford associate who was illegally hired to work at IDOT.

The court monitor's report indicated that the governor's office forced IDOT to hire Lightford's daughter for a position — asset recovery specialist — that required legal training.

A lawyer who was scheduled to be hired by IDOT was shunted aside for Lightford's daughter, who had worked as a ramp agent at O'Hare International Airport and a package handler at FedEx. The monitor's report indicated Lightford's daughter did not work out well at IDOT because she "lacked legal or claims experience."

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

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion
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