Metro-East News

August 30, 2014

'Unbelievable': Woman connected to Clayborne gets state job

Gov. Pat Quinn's latest appointment to an $86,000-a-year position on the Illinois Prisoner Review Board is a woman who has a personal connection with Sen. James Clayborne, who recommended her for the job.

She's Vonetta N. Harris, 40. The nature of her connection to Clayborne is unclear, but on a recent morning at about 7:30, a reporter outside Clayborne's Belleville home observed Harris drive a vehicle out of Clayborne's garage.

Harris lists her address as being in Swansea. Clayborne and Harris, both Democrats, did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for Quinn, a Democrat, issued a one-sentence statement: "We select qualified individuals for nomination to the Prisoner Review Board, and Ms. Harris meets the required qualification."

Clayborne's opponent in the November election, Republican Katherine Ruocco of Swansea, said Harris' appointment is "truly unbelievable."

She added: "This is just another example of career politician Jim Clayborne taking care of his friends and cronies, while our families pay with high unemployment and record tax hikes."

Ken Tupy, legal counsel for the Prisoner Review Board, said he wasn't aware of Clayborne and Harris having any type of relationship.

"I don't pry into their personal lives," Tupy said. "All I know is that Sen. Clayborne supported her appointment to the board. She listed him as the person that would support her when she applied for the position."

The board has 15 members. Members are required to have five years of experience in one or more of the following fields: penology, corrections work, law enforcement, sociology, law, education, social work, medicine, psychology or other behavioral sciences.

At the time of her appointment, Harris was a program coordinator for East St. Louis School District 189. She holds a bachelor's degree in social work and master's degrees in public administration and education administration.

Tupy said Harris has been a good member for the board.

"What's nice about her is, she's got a lot of educational background. A lot of our inmates are people who have not completed their education," Tupy said. "She brings a lot of the educational background into her decisions, and it's nice having her on the board to talk about that."

The Prisoner Review Board meets four weeks per year in Springfield to review clemency petitions and make recommendations on them to the governor. Board members also conduct hearings at state prisons on matters such as parole violations and revoking good-conduct credits of inmates who violate the rules.

Tupy said board members typically visit prisons three days per week. A typical visit might include reviewing 10 or so cases, lasting an hour or two. Not all board members are required to be in attendance at the prisons to conduct business. On a typical day, the board might have three members at one prison, two at another prison, and four at another prison, Tupy said.

Altogether, the board reviewed 50,000 cases last year. "We have a lot of duties," he said.

Besides earning a salary of $85,886 per year, board members are provided a state car and a gas card.

Harris' ex-husband, Korey L. Rush, served a federal prison sentence for misusing federal grant money while he worked as a director of a program at SIUE's East St. Louis campus. He also was ordered to pay $38,120 in restitution to the university.

Rush was a coordinator for a program designed to help disadvantaged youths get into college.

In an interview, he admitted that he used $27,820 in grant money to make unauthorized credit card purchases for himself, including gift cards, meals, liquor and a television that was delivered to his home. He also admitted to awarding two separate $4,000 no-work contracts to a "family friend" who is identified in court records only by the initials C.B., and allowing subordinates to make $2,300 in unauthorized credit card purchases.

Rush was charged in 2009 and pleaded guilty in 2010. Harris and Rush married in 2004 and were divorced in early 2012, according to court records.

Ruocco said she believes that if Harris wasn't aware of her husband's criminal activity, it "clearly puts into question her ability to recognize criminal behavior" on the Prisoner Review Board.

SENATE CONFIRMATION

Quinn's appointment of Harris was approved by the Senate in November by a vote of 49-0, with three senators voting "present." Six senators didn't vote, including Clayborne.

Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, an Okawville Republican who voted in favor of Harris' appointment, said he was unaware of any personal connection between Harris and Clayborne.

Luechtefeld said he didn't want to comment on Harris' appointment specifically. But he said Quinn has made several questionable appointments to state jobs and boards.

"During the Blagojevich administration, there were some appointments where you would say, 'This is just a patronage appointment.' I watching that during the Blagojevich administration, and I really believe that appointments during the Quinn administration are even more reckless," Luechtefeld said.

He added, "I believe a lot of that is coming out now, as you're finding out with the Department of Transportation, and they've embarrassed the governor."

Quinn appointed Harris after his previous appointee to the Prisoner Review Board, former Democratic state Rep. Careen Gordon, resigned rather than face a difficult confirmation vote in the Senate. Questions had been raised about whether the governor appointed Gordon in exchange for her voting in favor of the temporary 67 percent income tax increase three days earlier, in January 2011. After leaving the Prisoner Review Board, Gordon landed an $84,000-a-year job at the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Clayborne also voted for the tax increase, which is due to start rolling back in January, despite efforts by Quinn and others to extend it.

Ruocco said it's "time we send a wake-up call to Springfield and end political dynasties in Illinois by electing someone who is not part of the establishment, who will take on the special interests head-to-head and bring accountability back to Springfield.

"We just simply have to vote out the political insiders who feed at the government trough with our hard-earned tax dollars.We deserve better and can't afford to wait."

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com

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