No price to pay for bad behavior

No price to pay for bad behavior

Political insiders will continue to try to game the system until they are forced to pay a high price for their misconduct.

Given the state of the state, good news is hard to come by. Even when it does come, it's often not all that good.

That's why Gov. Bruce Rauner's recent announcement that he has sent layoff notices to 29 state workers who were illegally hired sends a mixed message — at best.

The bottom line is clear: The bad guys win again.

Scandals pile up one on top of another in Illinois. So taxpayers will be forgiven if they don't recall all the details surrounding the massive conspiracy to violate hiring law perpetrated at the Illinois Department of Transportation and disclosed in 2014.

An internal investigation conducted by the department's inspector general revealed that individuals in the governor's office and at the highest levels of the department oversaw mass illegal patronage hiring from 2003 to 2014.

During that 11-year period, many, many dozens of individuals were allowed to skip the institutional hiring process and put on the state payroll. Those brought on board either had political connections, not the required job skills, to powerful legislators like House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, or were tight with campaign donors to former Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn.

To skirt the rules, they were brought in as "staff assistants," an invented job classification, and then improperly moved over time into legitimate job classifications where, ironically, they secured protected status despite their wholesale violation of hiring rules.

That's why it's disappointing that only 29 remaining "staff assistants" will be off the state payroll as of Sept. 15. That's far less than the 59 staff assistants Gov. Quinn tried to fire in 2014. They filed a lawsuit to block their dismissals.

Further, the 59 Quinn tried to fire were far less than the many dozens who were improperly hired over the years.

Here's the problem in a nutshell — there was massive wrongdoing and almost no accountability for that wrongdoing.

Political overseers of this sham process escaped, for the most part, without a scratch.

Transportation Department heads Gary Hannig and Ann Schneider both denied knowing anything about the corruption on their watch.

Schneider's denials were especially incredible since evidence showed she arranged for the political hiring of her own stepdaughter.

But people get the idea — nobody admitted to knowing anything and almost everyone involved, for one reason or another, got away with it.

Department hiring now is overseen by a court-appointed outsider monitor, a costly but necessary safeguard given the circumstances.

Patronage hiring has been illegal in Illinois since a 1990 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. But politicos are constantly trying to skirt the rules to help friends, family members and campaign donors, and that's what happened here.

Some may say that's the way the political game is played, so what's the harm?

It was the way the game was played, but no more. Now patronage hiring is a illegal.

But here's the bigger problem. People without the requisite skills were hired to do the Transportation Department's important work. Further, those who were hired in violation of the rules took opportunities away from skilled applicants who played by the rules.

It's good to see that Gov. Rauner takes the hiring issues seriously and has made it a point to follow the law. He describes the illegal hiring program as a costly corruption tax born by all taxpayers.

At the same time, it's important to remember that those who engaged in wrongdoing paid little to no price at all. Even those who face the layoffs profited by holding jobs they obtained through subterfuge for years.

Corruption will continue to be a problem in Illinois as long as those who perpetrate it pay little to no price for their misbehavior. What happened at IDOT was a wholesale violation of law, a conspiracy to deny the public the value for its tax dollars and to reward a group of unqualified workers at the expense of qualified workers for political reasons.

As long as that sort of behavior is ignored by those who enforce the law, no one should be surprised if it happens again under a future administration.

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