Scarlet letters, political payback and City Hall’s do-not-hire list

Because the list is public to anybody who asks to see it, it works as a kind of a public shaming.

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Former Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson.

Former Chicago police Supt. Eddie Johnson

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A big company will often maintain a confidential do-not-hire list, and for good reason. A bad apple fired from one store or office might otherwise be hired at another, nobody being the wiser.

It’s hard to quarrel with do-not-hire lists in the private sector.

When a government agency keeps such a list, though, the stakes are higher. The list can become a tool of disproportionate punishment or political retribution for the simple reason that it cannot be kept so strictly confidential. The government agency must cough it up for anybody — including a prospective employer — who files a Freedom of Information Act request.

The list can follow you anywhere.

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This gets to the heart of why we’re uneasy with seeing the names of two prominent former Chicago city employees, former Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and former Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey, on City Hall’s do-not-hire list.

Maybe they deserve to be on the list or maybe not; we actually don’t have many clues as to why McCaffrey’s name is on it. But because the list is public to anybody who asks to see it, as City Hall Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman did, it effectively works as a kind of public shaming.

It is, as Spielman wrote, “a scarlet letter.”

In Johnson’s case, we have to wonder if City Hall could have kept his name off the list at least until an internal investigation is completed by the city’s inspector general. Mayor Lori Lightfoot sent Johnson into early retirement in December because, she says, he lied to her about a long night involving drinking and driving.

It’s not as if the former police chief is about to put on a fake beard and apply for a job driving a city truck.

This is not about cutting Johnson a special break. Given the public nature of a government do-not-hire list, every last consideration of fairness should be made, beyond the standards of the private sector, before putting anybody’s name on the list.

As for McCaffrey, Lightfoot says she fired him in December “for cause” after receiving information raising “serious concerns” about his “professionalism and his judgment.”

Obviously, it would be inappropriate for the mayor to reveal the particulars of why McCaffrey was fired. Bosses can’t do that. But going only on what we do know — that McCaffrey had stirred things up at City Hall by raising “ethical issues” about his own boss — it’s fair to question why his name is on the do-not-hire list along with those of former employees who have committed crimes or taken advantage of city taxpayers.

Is his scarlet letter justified? Or is this payback?

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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