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Shakman: Workers' comp jobs should be 'non-political' hires

Attorney Michael Shakman | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago’s $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program is an “executive branch responsibility” with jobs that should be “filled under the city’s non-political hiring plan,” attorney Michael Shakman said Wednesday.

Shakman filed the complaint that culminated in the federal ban on political hiring and signed off on a 2014 agreement that persuaded a federal judge to release Chicago from the 42-year-old Shakman decree that bears his name.

He painstakingly negotiated a hiring plan that made all City Council employees exempt positions.

On Wednesday, Shakman acknowledged that he made a “mistake” by exempting worker’s comp employees in the City Council’s Finance Committee chaired by Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

“It sounds like something that belongs in the executive branch and, therefore, should be a job filled under the city’s non-political hiring plan,” Shakman said.

“With respect to City Council employees, we should have done more and I regret not having done more. We did have an effort to bring the City Council into the fold . . . It didn’t go anywhere. The judge was not very sympathetic to the argument, and we didn’t push it. That was focused on all aldermanic employees — not on worker’s comp people. It was a mistake on our part.”

Still, Shakman argued that Jay Stone, maverick son of former longtime Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), has other legal hurdles to clear if he hopes to make the case that Burke administers workers’ comp in a way that violates the Shakman decree.

“Stone would still have to show, No. 1 that it’s impermissible for the City Council to allocate an executive job to a legislative officer and No. 2 that . . . Burke is using those jobs as patronage jobs,” Shakman said.

Still, Stone called Shakman’s support for the complaint he filed against Burke with Inspector General Joe Ferguson the “highest honor possible that I could receive.”

The late alderman’s son said he has no doubt that he can make the case that Burke has filled those worker’s comp jobs with “political hacks,” as he put it.

“Growing up and living in politics, that’s the way it works,” Stone said.

In 2008, Stone won a $75,000 award from the $12 million fund created to compensate victims of City Hall’s rigged hiring system.

A federal hiring monitor believed his claims that he lost his 2003 aldermanic election against Ald. Ted Matlak (32nd) because Matlak had the support of the political army commanded by now-convicted former First Deputy Water Commissioner Donald Tomczak.

Stone said he decided to file the complaint against Burke after his friend, Pat McDonough, a city plumbing inspector who spoke out about abuses in the city’s Hired Truck Program, got a letter from the Finance Committee last month cutting off his disability pay.

“The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I could not understand why the Finance Committee was administering duty disability. And more importantly, my friend was denied due process. They just stopped his pay. The letter said he was non-cooperative. It didn’t say how or who said so,” Stone said.

“My friend is a three-time whistleblower. He reported corruption. They could use the giving or taking away of workers’ comp to help those who are precinct captains and punish those who work against the machine.”

Referring to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, Stone said, “If Ald. [Pat] O’Connor goes to Ed Burke and says, `One of my guys was injured on the job. Take care of him,’ you can be sure Burke is going to take care of him. But if a political upstart who raises trouble gets duty disability, they’re not going to get the same treatment. Workers’ comp has got to be taken out of the political process.”

Before empowering Ferguson to investigate aldermen and their employees, the City Council voted 25 to 23 to deny the inspector general the right to audit workers’ comp and programs administered by aldermen.

Even so, Stone maintained that Ferguson has the power to investigate Burke after assuming the all-important power of policing city hiring in the post-Shakman era when federal hiring monitor Noelle Brennan was dismissed.

“The federal decree trumps any ethics ordinance. It’s a higher authority. They can’t use an ethics ordinance to block or circumvent an agreement signed in federal court,” he said.

No matter what Ferguson does, Stone urged Emanuel to move immediately to seize control over the workers’ comp program.

“Mayor Emanuel has abdicated his workers’ comp duties and responsibilities to Ald. Burke,” Stone said.

“He has gone after the teachers. But he wouldn’t dare go after Burke because of Burke’s knowledge and control over the Finance Committee.”