Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford’s office has offered an expansive college internship program during his tenure, giving more than 100 students tens of thousands of dollars in summer pay — and a plum for their resumes. 

But the path to those jobs is often layered in clout, according to a Chicago Sun-Times review of the office’s program.

Documents obtained by the Sun-Times show the treasurer’s office maintained a list of applicants, alongside a notation indicating their referral.

Who made those referrals?

Some of the biggest power players in the state, including elected officials, lobbyists, onetime political workers, donors.

Rutherford’s office says clout played no role in steering the internships, which jumped from eight positions the last year of Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias’ tenure in the office to 58 in 2013 — the same year Rutherford, a Republican, launched a primary bid for governor.

Each year as part of its search for applicants, Rutherford’s office sent letters to Chicago aldermen and members of the Illinois General Assembly soliciting referrals. Internships also were posted on the Illinois Treasurer’s website, the office said.

Applicants backed by Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan; U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill.; Ald. Walter Burnett (27th); and Rutherford won the summer gigs.

A relative of Jim Laski, a former city clerk who pleaded guilty to taking bribes as part of the Hired Truck investigation, was awarded internships for two consecutive summers, as was a relative of state Rep. Kenneth Dunkin, D-Chicago. One intern was recommended by the now-convicted state Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago.

Then there was a teenage member of the Pritzker family, which Forbes has put near the top of its list of the wealthiest families in the United States. 

In 2011, Rutherford’s office hired a Pritzker family member for a college internship, despite the individual being just 16 at the time. The person turned 17 during the internship and was paid a total of $1,892. That person’s clout? Dan Rutherford himself, according to information provided to the Sun-Times through a documents request.

A year earlier, a direct relative to that Pritzker intern kicked in significantly to Rutherford’s campaign fund: with a $50,000 campaign contribution. The donor again contributed $4,000 this year. A spokeswoman for the Pritzker family did not comment.

Rutherford spokeswoman Mary Frances Bragiel said there was absolutely no connection between the Pritzker internship and the campaign contribution and noted that the individual worked in the office for just six weeks that summer.

Rutherford’s office defended its practice of soliciting sitting politicians for internship referrals and denied that the spreadsheets amounted to a “clout list.” 

“In sending out the letters to the members of the Legislature and Chicago aldermen — it’s a government office and who better to know about internships in state government than elected officials?” said Loriann McCabb, Rutherford’s deputy chief of staff.

State Rep. Wayne Rosenthal, R-Morrisonville, sponsored an intern who was also a neighbor. Rosenthal said he “provided applications” for Rutherford’s internship but was not involved in the application process. When asked if he believed being a state lawmaker helped his person get the internship, Rosenthal said, “Yeah, very possibly so.”

Former state Rep. Randy Ramey, R-West Chicago, said the intern he sponsored once worked on his campaign. Ramey said he knew the intern was looking to get more training, so he recommended the internship with Rutherford. “I never had any direct contact with the office.”

Chicago Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said he sponsored a female college student but would not talk about how he knew her other than from “people who live in my ward.”

The office also said that while Giannoulias didn’t hire many interns, predecessors carried a larger load of interns than Rutherford, with it peaking at 73 in 2003, according to numbers provided by the treasurer’s office.

But the way that paid internships under Rutherford ramped up quickly raises questions about whether clout played a role in their hiring. In 2011, the office hired 48 interns, in 2012 it hired 51, in 2013 it was 58, and this year the number dropped to 21.

A spokeswoman with the office of the governor said the office has five unpaid interns this summer – who work for college credit. The Illinois Secretary of State’s office does not have an internship program, paid or unpaid. The Comptroller’s office has 14 paid internships this summer.

The Illinois attorney general’s office said it has 40 to 50 unpaid law clerks who are law students and under the direction of the AG’s Recruitment and Professional Development staff.

Rutherford’s interns mainly were assigned to work in the I-Cash property recovery program and were paid $9.50 an hour, his aides say. They say the benefit can be seen in the gains made in the recovery program — returning more than $100 million to Illinois residents — each year Rutherford has been in office.

In a spreadsheet format, the office maintained lists of intern applicants that included an entry for the name of his or her “reference” which often turned out to be an elected official.

Rutherford has been accused in a federal lawsuit of maintaining the lists to build political capital in the runup to his 2013-14 bid for governor. Allegations by the same person, former Treasurer employee Ed Michalowski, derailed Rutherford’s ambitions for governor after Michalowski lodged allegations of sexual harassment and political intimidation by Rutherford.

Rutherford’s office pointed back to Michalowski, saying it was he and another employee who headed the internship program in 2011 and signed off the treasurer’s name.

An attorney for Michalowski said that was false.

“Mr. Michalowski was never in charge of the intern program. Treasurer Rutherford personally decided whether each intern would be hired, and no one other than Treasurer Rutherford had any say in the matter,” said attorney James Vanzant. “The suggestion that the treasurer had no involvement with the intern program is false, and the treasurer’s attempt to blame Mr. Michalowski for the treasurer’s own actions is simply further retaliation for daring to speak out against him.”

When asked about the interview process for getting an internship, Rutherford office counsel Neil Olson responded: “I’m not aware of any required process of the selection of interns.”

Olson said Rutherford expanded the intern program, in part, because he “wanted to make the program open from across the state from political and geographic diversity.”

The numbers were staggering to one longtime Springfield political observer.

“To have 58 in such a small office is pretty mind-blowing. Wow,” said Kent Redfield professor emeritus for the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Redfield said he headed an internship program for two decades that staffed interns with four partisan staffs and research units. In all, 25 interns were used for five entities.

“If you essentially have a clout list and take people who have sponsors — and whether it’s party or contributors or members of the Legislature, it’s all still a form of patronage hiring,” Redfield said. “It’s pretty clear that’s what’s going on. When you don’t have formal procedures and a formal application process, then you leave yourself open to either appearing you are doing favors or, in fact, it creates a situation where you can have abuses.”