When a 16-year-old member of the wealthy Pritzker family ends up with a college internship that’s paid for by Illinois taxpayers, you know something’s gotta be up.
That was perhaps the most blatant in a series of red flags after the Chicago Sun-Times reviewed an internship program run out of the office of former Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
Among the other curiosities were that:
• The state treasurer had a staggering 58 paid interns working out of his office at one time.
• There were no written procedures or qualifications to obtain one of these internships.
• Rutherford, then gearing up for a run for governor, appeared to keep a clout list that tracked which public official recommended which intern.
• The Pritzker hire came after Rutherford accepted a $50,000 contribution from a Pritzker family member.
• Every 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.
Rutherford is now gone from the office after making a failed run for governor. In the spirit of turning a new leaf in Springfield, newcomer Illinois Treasurer Mike Frerichs ordered an audit that called the program “clout-heavy” and demonstrated it was rife with issues.
In a news conference last week, Frerichs announced he will offer“a scaled-back program that has a much greater defined hiring process.”
Rutherford had defended his handling of the internships at the time, saying interns worked at state fairs and elsewhere to help reunite Illinois residents with their property through the office’s property-recovery program. But the audit Frerichs ordered also showed there were issues with how the asset-recovery program was run.
The audit only serves as further evidence that clout and politics often play an outsized role in hiring decisions that cost taxpayer money — even as our state fights for its financial life.
We’ve seen plenty of evidence of that elsewhere in state government, too. Look no further than a federal lawsuit that has the hiring practices at the Illinois Department of Transportation under scrutiny. A federal judge ordered a monitor to review hiring practices that put political hires into jobs not meant for them, a practice that started under Gov. Rod Blagojevich and intensified under Gov. Pat Quinn.
A Frerichs spokesman didn’t yet know what the size and scale of the internship program will be.
The audit also pointed to the manner in which a scholarship program was run out of the office — something else Frerichs says he will curb.
If recent allegations in federal court are true, they show who was calling the shots behind the scenes in that state office. In that lawsuit, Rutherford is accused of kowtowing to the Pritzker family, which was “very upset” the teen was paid for his internship. Rutherford allegedly demanded the boy be paid but, later in the summer, confronted a state employee — Edmund Michalowski — and “stated that the intern’s father was extremely upset that the intern was being paid for his work in the office, given that the intern was from a wealthy family.”
He probably wasn’t the only one angry about that.