Mihalopoulos: With spring, patronage blooms in recorder’s office

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Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough. | Cook County Recorder photo

Many times, patronage has been declared eradicated from these parts, only to sprout up again and again, proving as difficult to get rid of as crabgrass or dandelions.

At City Hall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration finally was freed from the oversight of a hiring monitor in 2014. It ended seven years of court oversight that began after federal agents raided then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office and arrested his patronage chief.

But clout hiring allegedly remains in full bloom in at least one local government agency: the office of Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough.

Yarbrough is in her second term in an elected post that’s relatively obscure. Don’t let that fool you into underestimating her political influence.


She’s the vice chair for the Democratic Party of Illinois. On paper, she looks up only to Michael Madigan, the all-powerful party boss and speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives.

As recorder, though, she must answer also to a monitor appointed more than six years ago by the federal judge in the long-running Shakman case. Since 1969, lawyer Michael Shakman has fought in federal court here to end political influence in government hiring and firing.

The latest report from the Shakman monitor for the county recorder’s office, lawyer Cardelle Spangler, documents “several negative developments” at Yarbrough’s office, foremost among them accusations of recent clout hiring.

Spangler cites an investigation by the county’s independent inspector general, Patrick Blanchard. He alleges “political reasons or factors affected” the recorder’s October 2015 hiring of “the nephew of a congressman.”

Although the alleged clout hire is not named in public records, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times it was Jesse Davis, a relative of Democratic U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.

Jesse Davis told the inspector general he met Yarbrough while campaigning for then-Gov. Pat Quinn and later traveled about 70 miles every Saturday for “several months” to volunteer for Yarbrough’s Proviso Township Democrat Organization. He did that so he could “ultimately secure employment at the recorder’s office,” Blanchard alleges.

Blanchard also says his office learned that an aide to Yarbrough — “with the support of the recorder herself” — announced job openings at the recorder’s office to members of the Proviso Township political organization.

And Blanchard says Yarbrough and her Democratic group failed to respond to his document requests and subpoena.

“Taken as a whole, the recorder of deeds has demonstrated a near complete disregard to her obligations to cooperate in this case,” Blanchard wrote in March.

Yarbrough was unavailable to comment Friday, said John Mirkovic, her spokesman. But in a statement, he said the office “disagrees strongly” with Blanchard.

In a written response to the allegations on May 1, Yarbrough’s aides said they had followed protocol during the hiring process and that Jesse Davis received the highest score out of six applicants who were interviewed for the payroll spot he got.

“There was nothing to suggest that anything improper occurred during this hiring process or that [Davis] did not have the necessary qualifications, skills and abilities to hold the security guard position,” according to the response from Yarbrough’s office.

Yarbrough also alleges Blanchard overstepped his bounds by asking her for a list of members of her Proviso Township Democratic Organization.

It could be highly illuminating to compare that list with the payroll of the recorder’s office. But Yarbrough clearly has no intention of handing the document over, saying it would violate her rights.

“If the public knew that this report was not based on facts, and of the possibly unconstitutional tactics used to manufacture it, they would be as dismayed as we are,” Mirkovic said.

Blanchard and Spangler declined to comment.

Anyone doing any gardening here this time of year knows that sometimes a weed whacker or chemical lawn treatment is not enough to get rid of the toughest weeds.

It might take something more aggressive — like a federal investigative subpoena — to fully get to the roots of what’s happening in the county recorder’s office.

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