Watchdog alleges ‘illegal patronage’ in Cook County Clerk’s office

Michael Shakman wants a federal judge to intervene.

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Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough at a press conference on January 28, 2019.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, shown at a January press conference, is accused of violating two consent decrees.

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

A government watchdog has accused Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough of operating “an illegal patronage employment system” less than a year into her first term in the office, and he wants a federal judge to intervene. 

Michael Shakman alleged in a 12-page motion that Yarbrough has violated two consent decrees, entered in 1972 and 1991, in four ways.

One of those ways, he said, is “to make life so unbearable” for certain supervisors “that they have little choice but to resign” and leave jobs behind for Yarbrough’s political allies.

The 1972 and 1991 consent decrees were designed to prevent political considerations in hiring decisions. 

During a brief court appearance Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier gave Yarbrough’s attorneys until Oct. 11 to respond to the allegations. The lawyers are due back in court Oct. 31.

A spokesman for Yarbrough did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among Shakman’s complaints is a so-called “rotation policy” he said is aimed at six supervisors in the Bureau of Vital Records. The supervisors were allegedly told last May they would have to rotate every 90 days to a new branch office until each had worked in the Bridgeview, Markham, Maywood, Rolling Meadows and Skokie offices.

The stated justification, according to Shakman’s motion, was to “promote uniformity across all offices” and allow each supervisor “to learn how things are done in the other offices.” 

However, Shakman argued, “procedures governing employees in the Bureau of Vital Records are the same in all of the Clerk’s locations.” And, he said, three supervisors have been exempted from the rotation. One is about to retire; one is related to a former Chicago alderman; the third is “connected” to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Shakman alleged.

Shakman insisted Yarbrough is trying to force the targeted supervisors out of their jobs so she can give their jobs to people with political connections. 

In court Wednesday, an attorney for Yarbrough told the judge the Office of the Independent Inspector General had already looked into the rotation policy and “found it was not done for political purposes.” One of Shakman’s attorneys said that investigation was based on bad information, though.

The inspector general’s office declined to comment.

Shakman also complained a new deputy clerk with political connections in Yarbrough’s hometown of Maywood, Erica Sanchez, has made oral changes to written employment policies “and refused to put those modifications in writing.” The new policies also have been selectively enforced, Shakman claimed.

He alleged Yarbrough has hired political allies in positions that are not exempt from the court’s consent decrees. He pointed to: Tim Curry, hired as deputy clerk of security, who served as Maywood’s police chief when Yarbrough’s husband was mayor there; Cynthia Soto, hired to serve as Clerk of the Board and Procurement Director, who he said is a former colleague of Yarbrough’s in the state legislature; and Holly Figliuolo, hired into an executive assistant position, who Shakman said is related to state Sen. Robert Martwick Jr.

Finally, Shakman alleged Yarbrough has been inappropriately asking workers for political donations. 

“The clerk solicited these political contributions through text messages sent to the Clerk employees’ private cell phone numbers the Clerk obtained from employment records,” Shakman alleged.

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