Ald. Burke accused of hiring ‘political hacks’ to run $100M-a-year workers’ comp program
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Chicago’s most powerful aldermen was accused Tuesday of violating the Shakman decree by allowing “political hacks” to administer a $100 million-a-year workers’ compensation program that belongs in the executive branch.
Jay Stone, the maverick son of former longtime Ald. Bernard Stone (50th), filed a complaint with Inspector General Joe Ferguson, asking Ferguson to investigate Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee.
In the complaint, Stone accused Burke of turning the workers’ comp program over to “his handpicked political appointees” in violation of the Shakman decree banning political hiring.
The 2014 agreement that persuaded a federal judge to release Chicago from the 42-year-old Shakman decree made City Council employees exempt positions. Stone’s complaint attempts to get around that loophole by claiming that the workers’ comp program “belongs in the executive branch of government.”
“Burke’s workers’ compensation exempt jobs should have been classified as Shakman non-exempt jobs based on the type of work that the workers’ compensation employees are doing,” Stone wrote in the complaint, forwarded to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“Once Chicago’s workers’ compensation program moves from the legislative branch of government to the executive branch, then the designation of workers’ compensation employees will change to the proper Shakman non-exempt classification, and the city will have to hire the most qualified and abled employees to run the program.”
Stone notes that the executive branch administers workers’ comp in “all other major U.S. cities.” Chicago would be no different, if an “archaic” municipal code had not allowed the Finance Committee Chairman to “improperly run” the program.
Burke could not be reached for comment.
The late alderman’s son likened Burke’s alleged hiring violations to the Illinois Department of Transportation’s decision to “wrongfully classify” hundreds of jobs as “staff assistants.” That paved the way for the hiring of political appointees under two former governors, Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn.
“The Chicago municipal code has allowed Burke to do the same. [It] . . . has turned obvious Shakman non-exempt jobs into Shakman-exempt jobs,” Stone wrote.
“The municipal code sanction of Burke’s Finance Committee . . . is not about finding a successful loophole to avoid Shakman. Rather, it’s about the municipal code and Burke’s blatant and wanton violation of Shakman and separation of powers.”
Before empowering Ferguson to investigate aldermen and their employees, the City Council voted 25-23 to limit Ferguson to investigating potential violations of the law by aldermen and their employees.
Program audits that Ferguson routinely conducts to determine whether taxpayers’ money is being wasted will be off-limits when it comes to the City Council. The workers’ comp program will be safe from Ferguson’s scrutiny. So will the $66 million-a-year aldermanic menu program.
The question now is whether the watered-down ordinance prevents Ferguson from investigating Stone’s claim that Burke is violating the Shakman decree.
Michael Shakman, who filed the landmark complaint, could not be reached for comment on Stone’s claim that city employees who administer the workers’ comp program should be non-exempt.
Two years ago, Ferguson assumed the all-important power of policing city hiring in the post-Shakman era after U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier released Chicago from the Shakman decree and dismissed federal hiring monitor Noelle Brennan.
Ferguson refused to comment on Stone’s complaint. The ordinance empowering him to investigate aldermen and City Council employees does not take effect until March 16.
At the same City Council meeting where aldermen walled off the worker’s comp program from Ferguson’s watchful eye, Ald. John Arena (45th) introduced a resolution urging the City Council to explore transferring control over the program from the Finance Committee to the city’s Law Department.
It’s not the first time that Jay Stone has ruffled feathers at City Hall.
In 2008, Stone won a $75,000 award from the $12 million fund created to compensate victims of City Hall’s rigged hiring system.
Brennan believed his claims that he was a sure loser in 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.
“I’m in shock. I’m in awe,” Jay Stone said at the time.
“The message is we should hold fair and competitive elections in Chicago. I never stood a chance because I was up against a seasoned political army that was being paid for by the taxpayers of Chicago,” he said then.
Veteran aldermen branded the award “outrageous,” calling it evidence that Brennan “doesn’t have a clue.”
“We’ve got potholes to fix. We spend $20 million on snow removal, and the federal monitor decides in her infinite wisdom to give somebody $75,000 because they lost an election? Can I sign up for that program?” said then-Ald. Tom Allen (38th) who is now a Circuit Court judge.
“Somebody lost an election and, somehow, that’s an injury the city is liable for? It’s an outrage. This is crazy. What about all the people who lost elections against the union machine? This monitor has no clue,” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who was elected and re-elected with support from the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization at the center of the city hiring scandal.
At the time, Brennan attributed the barrage of criticism to the fact that “aldermen and the mayor don’t have access to the same information that I do” about the impact of Tomczak’s army on Jay Stone’s campaign.
In 2012, Burke clashed with Ferguson over access to workers’ compensation claims administered by the Finance Committee.
At the time, Burke denied the inspector general access to databases related to the workers’ comp program for civilian employees on grounds that “duty disability” is governed by state law, not city ordinance; that Ferguson’s investigative powers are limited to misconduct, and Finance Committee staffers fell under the jurisdiction of the now-departed Legislative Inspector General.
Ferguson countered then that he routinely conducts audits to review city programs, identify waste and inefficiency, and recommend ways to prevent it. He referred to Chicago Sun-Times stories that identified waste, abuse and mismanagement in the $45 million-a-year disability program for police officers and firefighters.
“Blocking (my office’s) access is especially egregious in this case, as recent press reports have detailed anecdotal evidence of a city program very much in need of outside review, hopefully leading to improvements and savings to taxpayers,” Ferguson wrote. “The best way to determine whether there is waste, fraud or abuse in this city-funded program administered by the city for the benefit of city workers . . . is to subject the program to a thorough review.”