SPRINGFIELD — Dozens of state jobs involved in a dispute over whether they should be free of politics were filled by Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration with candidates who were politically connected or gave campaign contributions to the governor’s party, an Associated Press review of state documents shows.
They were hired for posts in a process closed to the public, and without regard to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lays out strict rules against improperly giving taxpayer-funded jobs to people based on political connections. The Quinn administration says the jobs should be exempt from the ruling because they are sensitive policy-making positions, but one of the jobs was pre-screening the hire of highway maintenance workers.
The AP review, based on emails provided by the Quinn administration, is the first to publicly reveal the identities and connections of some of the people hired by IDOT under Quinn as part of a program that is being challenged in federal court and has drawn scrutiny from the state inspector general and lawmakers. The program also has become an issue in Quinn’s campaign for re-election, as Republican rival Bruce Rauner attempts to undermine the governor’s assertion that he has cleaned up Illinois government after two predecessors were sentenced to prison.
In an analysis of about 45 Quinn administration hires described in the government emails, the AP found more than half had connections. For instance, four held jobs in Quinn’s office or worked for another Democrat before moving to IDOT; nine are relatives of officeholders, party officials, union representatives or others who are politically connected; seven are politically active, either as officeholders or party officials; three have donated to campaign committees; and two have served on campaign payrolls, including for legislators.
Michael Shakman, a Chicago attorney and anti-patronage activist who asked a federal judge last month to order an investigation into hiring under Quinn, said the AP’s findings were not surprising given the state’s history.
“This is consistent with what we thought was going on,” Shakman said. “It’s why we need to get an independent monitor to sort through some of this.”
Quinn repeatedly says he has “zero tolerance” for any wrongdoing and has cracked down on hiring procedures since taking over in 2009 for now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — a position reiterated by his spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, when presented with the AP findings.
IDOT Spokesman Guy Tridgell said the department follows the rules. He said the agency was allowed to make the hires under an exemption from state rules that’s reserved for policy makers or other members of a governor’s inner circle.
“The credentials of prospective employees are reviewed and if they are a good fit and can provide good service to the agency, they are considered for employment,” Tridgell said in an emailed statement.
At issue is whether the jobs were properly publicized to allow anyone to apply, regardless of whether the successful candidate was competent. The Better Government Association reported last summer that as many as 200 jobs categorized as “staff assistants” were improperly filled under both Blagojevich and Quinn based on “clout instead of competence.”
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IDOT says state officials reviewed the roster of remaining staff assistants and found that 48 of 60 indeed should have been protected by the Supreme Court’s Rutan ruling, meaning their jobs should not have been given to employees based on connections or loyalty. But state officials say it could cost millions of dollars in court expenses if they tried to reopen hiring for those posts.
Quinn’s office has not detailed which of those 60 jobs were reclassified, but provided the AP with 137 pages of emails between IDOT supervisors and the governor’s office addressing both staff assistants and other positions. Listed were about 45 people hired mostly in 2011 and deemed exempt from Rutan rules by the administration. As part of its reporting, the AP attempted to contact each person, but among roughly two dozen reached, all either did not return phone messages, declined to comment or referred AP to IDOT.
Among the 45 hires was Kathleen Vehovic, the daughter of former Sangamon County Democratic party chairman Todd Renfrow.
Vehovic was hired to a $39,000-a-year post after serving repeatedly filling emergency positions. One email said Vehovic “performed exceptionally” and was “critical” to bureau operations because she coordinates pre-employment screening for snow removal and highway maintenance workers.
Shakman said the job “obviously” should not have been exempt from state hiring rules.
Here are examples of state employees with political connections who were hired at the IDOT under Quinn:
An Associated Press review of emails and other state documents shows that dozens of government jobs involved in a dispute over whether they should be free of politics were filled with candidates who were politically involved or gave campaign money to the governor’s party. The administration says the jobs should be exempt from a court ruling banning political hires because they are policy-making positions.
Former Alderman John Rice got his $84,000-a-year IDOT job months after losing his seat on the Chicago City Council. A 2012 report published by the New York Times about Illinois politics stated that his newly created position of safety manager was never posted, and his application was filed the same day he started work. At the time, an IDOT spokesman denied the job was created just for Rice.
Rice could not be reached for comment.
Bill Helm was the former president of the 47th Ward Democratic Party in Chicago who has donated money to Democrats. Helm was deputy supervisor of the Cook County Forest Preserve District under then-county board President Todd Stroger but was replaced shortly after Toni Preckwinkle was elected county board president in November 2010. He was hired a few months later as a deputy director of operations at IDOT. State records show he made about $111,000 last year, but is no longer working at IDOT.
A phone message left with Helm’s mother — who confirmed he had left IDOT — was not returned.
Doris Bartolotti, of Benton, is listed as the chair of the Franklin County Democratic Committee in an online county directory. Her husband and brother-in-law are county committeemen. State records show her son — who is mayor of a small southern Illinois community — has worked for IDOT since 2004.
Reached at her home, Doris Bartolotti — who made about $49,000 at IDOT in 2013 — said she would be happy to discuss her employment but needed to talk with her boss first. She later could not be reached.
Nick Lay of Johnson County is a former county Democratic committeeman. He’s listed as a technical manager IV and made $64,400 last year. When reached, he referred the AP to IDOT for comment.