SPRINGFIELD — At least three government administrators began working on hiring employees for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration last winter while on the comptroller’s office payroll, using taxpayer dollars from a separate constitutional office before Rauner had even taken the state’s reins.
Rauner, a Republican who promised to clean up clout-laced government hiring, relied on comptroller’s employees to get his administration rolling, including recommending candidates for politically affiliated jobs, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. Two went on to become senior Rauner managers, including one who oversees hiring for the governor’s office.
Rauner aides say the practice was appropriate, efficient and pre-approved by the comptroller’s independent inspector general. But political experts and reform advocates say the practice was improper and breached divisions between constitutional offices.
“You want to help out the governor? Do it on your time, on your nickel,” said Kent Redfield, an expert on political ethics at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “To me, that’s pretty clearly wrong. One of the functions of the state comptroller’s office is not to act as an HR department for the governor’s office.”
Private funds typically cover a new governor’s transition. The use of comptroller employees by the multimillionaire former venture capitalist, who vowed to “shake up” how Springfield does business, raises questions about whether he didn’t want to be hampered by bureaucratic restraints or was cutting corners and blurring lines set up to prevent conflicts between separate units of government.
Rauner spokesman Lance Trover scoffed at the reproach, emphasizing the inspector general’s blessing.
“Only in Illinois do you get attacked for doing things the right way,” he said.
It’s impossible to say how many taxpayer dollars, appropriated for the comptroller’s job of paying the state’s bills, financed the work of Judith McAnarney and Matthew Magalis, who were setting up meetings with Cabinet-level agencies and discussing applicants to fill jobs during the workday while Rauner was still a private citizen.
The emails reviewed by the AP came from a half-dozen state agencies under a Freedom of Information Act request. But 19 agencies are keeping related documents secret, despite Rauner’s pledge of government transparency. GOP Comptroller Leslie Munger denied a similar request.
Redfield called the situation improper, if not illegal. The state Constitution bars using tax dollars for private purposes, he said, suggesting the situation could fall into that realm, particularly because Rauner wasn’t sworn in until Jan. 12.
“It raises ethical issues,” he said. “It’s better to have bright-line distinctions and if you start justifying getting into gray areas on the basis of whether it’s for a ‘good cause’ or a person’s ‘motives are good,’ that’s a slippery slope.”
Inspectors general for each constitutional office routinely investigate and recommend discipline for employees who abuse work time, engage in activities outside their job descriptions or conduct political tasks.
The pre-approval by Michael Drake, appointed 10 years ago by a Democratic comptroller, allowed the transition committee to use “experienced government human resource professionals with bipartisan backgrounds to ensure state hiring was done legally and appropriately,” Trover said.
The hiring by the comptroller’s employees continued into April under Munger, whom Rauner appointed after the death of Judy Baar Topinka in December. Munger chief of staff Brad Hahn released a letter from Drake dated Nov. 24, 2014, which OK’d transition-team participation by Nancy Kimme, Topinka’s top assistant.
“Gov. Rauner will need critical advice from qualified people within government,” Drake wrote. While indicating “it is likely that you will need to perform transition committee tasks while on state time,” the letter does not mention McAnarney, Magalis or anyone else.
Kimme, who left Munger’s staff in February, is rarely mentioned in the emails and did not respond to a request for comment.
State ethics law prohibits political activity on state time. In many emails, McAnarney and Magalis were discussing positions that are exempt from hiring rules — meaning the governor may fill the posts based on political considerations.
McAnarney became Rauner’s $115,000-a-year human resources manager in April. Magalis went to the Transportation Department in February as chief of staff with a $120,000 salary.
The Cabinet agencies refusing to disclose records under FOIA overwhelmingly contended that the documents may be withheld under an exemption protecting deliberative discussions. None addressed the comptroller’s authority to deliberate hiring for the governor.
“They have their own duties as members of the comptroller’s staff,” said David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “That is what they’re supposed to be doing on state time.”