Metro-East News

Report filed in federal lawsuit highlights local IDOT patronage hiring

Illinois state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea (left), and state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, are mentioned multiple times in a new report about political patronage hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Illinois state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea (left), and state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, are mentioned multiple times in a new report about political patronage hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation. dholtmann@bnd.com

In August 2012, state Sen. James Clayborne’s office sent to the Illinois Department of Transportation a job resume of a Washington Park clerk, who was making $11,000 in his job for the village.

According to a report filed this week, the job candidate called IDOT numerous times in December 2012 and January 2013 to ask about the status of his job offer — and to request that his salary be about $75,000 instead of about $55,000.

His resume reflected no qualifications to match the stated job duties, according to the report.

IDOT began setting up a job interview for the candidate about a month after receiving the emailed resume from the office of Clayborne, a Belleville Democrat.

The candidate ended up getting an IDOT job as a land acquisition agent, despite concerns of at least one IDOT hiring official. Former IDOT personnel management chief Mike Woods expressed concerns about the candidate in an email to Matt Hughes, who served as personnel chief for IDOT.

“He currently makes approx $11,000 per year. He was telling Jill that I promised he would be brought in around the midpoint (approximately $75,000) instead of bottom of the bracket (approximately $55,000).’ Obviously, I never told him anything of the sort. I don’t trust this guy at all,” Woods wrote.

The exchange was an example cited in a report filed recently in federal court in Chicago by Noelle Brennan, a court-appointed monitor. The report details the practice of political patronage hiring in the state during the administration of former Gov. Pat Quinn.

Clayborne and state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, were among those lawmakers named in the report as being the political or legislative connections for people seeking IDOT jobs.

A reporter’s phone calls seeking comment from Hoffman’s and Clayborne’s offices were not immediately returned.

The report was filed Monday as part of a 2014 federal lawsuit brought by anti-patronage activist Michael Shakman against the Illinois Department of Transportation. A federal judge assigned Brennan to dig into hiring at IDOT. The investigation followed an earlier report from then-state Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza, who found improper hiring began under ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and accelerated under Quinn.

The former Washington Park employee, whose identity is not disclosed in the report, was hired at IDOT as a “realty specialist III, chief negotiator in District 8,” in February 2013, with a starting salary of $54,900. The position was responsible for negotiating the purchase of commercial properties, farm properties, complex parcels or individual properties on behalf of state taxpayers.

The investigation found members of Quinn’s staff, as well as legislators, had pushed for people with political connections to be awarded jobs at IDOT.

“Personnel transactions were frequently initiated at the request of the governor’s office, rather than by a state agency,” the report said. “The governor’s office passed resumes of politically-connected candidates and persistently followed up with the agency to check on the status of the personnel requests. At times, the governor’s office specifically instructed an agency to create a personnel request, to find a position for a candidate, or to approve a pending personnel request.”

Personnel transactions were frequently initiated at the request of the governor’s office, rather than by a state agency. The governor’s office passed resumes of politically connected candidates and persistently followed up with the agency to check on the status of the personnel requests. At times, the governor’s office specifically instructed an agency to create a personnel request, to find a position for a candidate, or to approve a pending personnel request.

Special Master report on political patronage hiring during the Quinn Adminstration

Quinn’s former chief of staff, Ryan Croke, said he had to “respectfully disagree” with the report’s conclusions.

“Gov. Quinn took his oath of office seriously,” Croke said. “He 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.”

The investigation found that at least 70 IDOT staff assistants were connected to legislators, or to other elected officials and politicians.

The report detailed how people were improperly given jobs through political connections. Some jobs in state government can be Rutan-exempt, referring to a Supreme Court case. A Rutan-exempt job is one in which loyalty to the boss is a must — such as those with confidential information, a senior adviser or public spokesmen — so a governor may hire or fire whomever.

However, the state watchdog report found that low-level positions in IDOT were filled under Rutan-exempt rules as “political favors.” The reported added, in most instances, state employment cannot be based on political affiliation.

“Purported Rutan-exempt positions were filled without regard to whether there was an operational need, whether the candidate was qualified for the position, or whether the candidate would perform the stated duties of the position,” the report said.

The watchdog report called for comprehensive reform to eliminate “illegal patronage.” The report said many people who were hired into staff assistant positions remain employed, those who facilitated the hires continue to work for the state, and practices that allowed the questionable hirings continue to exist.

“The elimination of the staff assistant position is a positive step; it is, however, one of many remedial actions the state must take to fully address past patronage practices in the state of Illinois,” the report said. “The illegal hiring of the staff assistants has a continuing impact on state government.”

“Our investigation concluded that certain individuals within the governor’s office and a limited number of elected officials or their staff members manipulated the Rutan-exempt process to favor politically-connected candidates without regard to actual hiring need or candidates’ qualifications to perform the stated duties of the Rutan-exempt jobs into which they were hired,” the report said. “The manipulation was not just limited to IDOT or the staff assistant position.”

Gov. Quinn took his oath of office seriously. He 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.

Ryan Croke, former chief of staff for former Governor Pat Quinn

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration has now gone to court to try to terminate the employment of at least 36 remaining IDOT employees who were improperly hired. Rauner’s administration said the employees can’t be fired because of collective bargaining protections.

The report lists instances where elected officials pushed unqualified job candidates to state agencies, including at least three more instances where Clayborne’s office endorsed a job candidate.

The watchdog report detailed an instance where Clayborne’s office worked to find a job for an employee who was slated to be laid off in February 2013.

A Clayborne staff member asked IDOT whether there were any available positions for the employee to work as a tech trainee at the agency.

“The candidate was hired into a full-time Rutan-covered position in 2013,” the report said. “A review of that particular hiring sequence revealed that his selection was likely manipulated.”

In November 2011, Clayborne’s office forwarded a resume to IDOT for a job candidate who worked as a telecom salesman and for a parcel-delivery company.

“There were several internal IDOT emails regarding receiving (Candidate 3)’s resume and whether he could be placed in a 60-day emergency hire position,” the report said. “(Candidate 3) was hired in a Rutan-covered bridge tender job at IDOT in 2012.”

In July 2012, Clayborne’s office had a candidate who was interested in a payroll technician position, and who was ultimately hired for an entry-level engineering tech position. Five months later, there was a request to move the candidate from an engineering tech III position to an engineering tech IV position, according to the report.

The report said one email had a question about that move.

“Will we have to post that for interview if we move forward? Please let me know soon as possible so I can get the paperwork started.”

The report mentions Hoffman in several instances.

One IDOT staff assistant served as an intern for Hoffman in 2009, and later was on his payroll in 2010.

“The investigation revealed that (staff assistant 60)’s political connections helped her obtain a Rutan-exempt staff assistant position at IDOT,” the report said.

The staff assistant was eventually hired at IDOT in October 2011. She had been a district assistant for Hoffman for eight months, worked as a legislative assistant for the state Senate president’s office for eight months, and also had worked as a U.S. Postal carrier/clerk for more than 20 years.

While working for the legislators, the staff assistant answered phones and e-mails, dealt with constituents, maintained databases, paid bills and scheduled events, according to the report.

“Her resume does not reflect qualifications to fulfill the stated duties of the staff assistant position description,” the report said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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