SPRINGFIELD-In a blow to Gov. Pat Quinn, his former transportation secretary has accused his office of pushing “the vast majority” of improper political hires in her agency even though an ethics report released Friday shied away from blaming the governor’s office.
A report by state Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza alleged that “countless” legitimate job applicants for state jobs were sidestepped by hundreds of political appointees installed in state transportation jobs for which politics weren’t supposed to play a role.
Meza’s report centered on four former Illinois Department of Transportation employees, including two ex heads of the sprawling state bureaucracy for presiding over the allegedly improper hiring scheme but largely was silent on the governor’s office playing a direct role.
But former Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said in a rebuttal to Meza’s report that it was the governor’s office and not her personally responsible for filling non-political positions with political hires.
“It is my recollection that [the] vast majority of Rutan-exempt hires were chosen from those recommended to me or my staff by the governor’s office,” Schneider said, referring to the landmark Rutan U.S. Supreme Court opinion that placed limits on political hiring in government jobs.
“The governor’s office would have been provided resumes of all such candidates and would have requested that we complete the process of having the recommended person approved for the open position,” she said.
Schneider went on to say that she felt unable to turn away any recommended hires pushed by Quinn’s office.
“Neither I nor my staff were in a position to reject the recommended individuals for these exempt positions as no additional interview process was required,” she said.
Meza outlined how the hiring of so-called staff assistant positions, jobs where politics shouldn’t have entered the picture but seemingly did, spiked at IDOT under Quinn. In 2011, the second year of his governorship, 104 of those positions existed in the agency, exactly double the number that the agency had in 2008, the last full year of Rod Blagojevich’s governorship.
“While the full extent and impact of IDOT’s misuse of the staff assistant position may never be known, the duration and pervasiveness of IDOT’s improper acts have undoubtedly denied countless qualified candidates the opportunity to lawfully obtain state employment on the basis of merit,” Meza wrote in his report.
In response to Schneider, Quinn’s office Friday afternoon acknowledged it had recommended IDOT hire some job candidates, but only for Rutan-exempt policy-making jobs where politics could be a consideration.
“From time to time, the governor’s office provides potential job candidates for consideration for open, Rutan-exempt positions,” Quinn spokesman Grant Klinzman told Early & Often, the Chicago Sun-Times’ political portal. “The governor’s office’s expectation and understanding is, has been, and always will be that any candidate who is ultimately hired is doing the work of the position that candidate is filling. We expect employees in Rutan-exempt positions to be doing Rutan-exempt work.”
The hiring problems that spurred Meza’s investigation began in 2003 and spanned the administrations of both Blagojevich and Quinn, whose office Friday defended steps the governor has taken to clean up the agency.
“Gov. Quinn has zero tolerance for any hiring misconduct at any state agency. In July, he directed IDOT to abolish the staff assistant position and ordered a full audit of all Rutan-exempt positions at the agency. The governor also put a freeze on the creation of any new Rutan-exempt positions at IDOT, ordered a complete overhaul of the agency’s hiring procedures and brought in Erica Borggren to head the agency. Borggren is a decorated veteran who graduated first in her class at West Point with a record of reform,” Klinzman said.
“The governor directed her to clean up any hiring issues at the agency and that is exactly what she is doing,” he said.
Quinn’s Republican opponent for governor, Bruce Rauner, seized on the report and blasted the governor for failing to rein in patronage.
“Illinoisans don’t just pay a higher income tax under Pat Quinn, they pay a significant corruption tax, too,” Rauner said in a prepared statement. “This morning’s IDOT patronage revelations are just one more reminder why we need term limits on career politicians like Pat Quinn. Our political system is broken. We need to shake things up.”
The Meza report’s release follows by one day the Quinn administration’s firing of 58 IDOT employees who had been installed in the staff assistant positions. IDOT also announced it would be creating a board to evaluate hiring and imposed a hiring freeze on policy-making jobs for which political affiliation can be used as a consideration for hiring.
Earlier in the year, Chicago lawyer Michael Shakman sued the state over the jobs and has asked a federal judge to appoint an independent monitor to oversee hiring at IDOT.
Shakman’s action followed a 2013 report by the Better Government Association that identified as many as 200 staff assistants whose jobs had been improperly reclassified so that they could be hired without opening up a job search to everyone, regardless of their political persuasion.