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IDOT chief’s stepdaughter got job, promotion at state agency

Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said in April she knew nothing about potentially illegal patronage hiring at the state agency she runs.

Now, Schneider is refusing to discuss how her stepdaughter secured a job and promotion at the Illinois Department of Transportation — and whether the proper personnel procedures were followed.

Schneider was appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011 to run the state agency, which maintains thousands of miles of roads across the state and helps promote and regulate rail travel and airports in Illinois.

The Better Government Association confirmed that Schneider’s stepdaughter Ashley Carpenter was hired at IDOT in 2006 as a part-time clerical secretary in the Division of Aeronautics.

At the time, Schneider was IDOT’s director of finance and administration. The BGA also found that Carpenter was promoted in 2007 into a full-time “staff assistant” post.

An IDOT spokesman said Schneider did not help Carpenter get either job. Schneider would not agree to an interview request.

Carpenter told the BGA she does not know how the staff assistant position came about.

She said she was at her IDOT job when, one day, generic personnel paperwork arrived on her desk, which she filled out and turned in. Shortly after, Carpenter said, she learned she had been promoted to a staff assistant. She said she never applied or interviewed for the job or discussed it with Schneider.

“Honestly, I have no idea how I became full-time,” Carpenter said. “I have no idea who put that stack of papers on my desk.”

Carpenter was hired as a staff assistant using the “Rutan-exempt” process, in which politics and other subjective factors are allowed to be used as a basis for hiring, according to IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell and documents obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Most state-government hiring, firing and promotions are supposed to be free of politics and nepotism ever since a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as “Rutan.”

Under Rutan, politics can be considered in hiring only for a small number of jobs that deal with policy, legal issues and media responsibilities, among others.

The BGA reported last year that IDOT, under Quinn and his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, hired numerous people as staff assistants and assigned terms such as “policy” and “spokesperson” to their job descriptions during the application process. With those responsibilities, the posts could be filled by virtually anyone, without regard to qualifications.

Despite those descriptive terms, many of the staff assistants did not do those duties. They did the type of work that should have resulted in an objective hiring process where qualifications mattered. The BGA also found that staff assistants often ended up in union positions — a protected status that meant they were harder to fire or demote with a change in governor.

In short, the BGA found that IDOT appeared to violate state-government personnel procedures stemming from the Supreme Court’s Rutan ruling.

In Carpenter’s case, documents show Carpenter was hired as a staff assistant for “development and coordination of policy,” and an IDOT spokesman said she was indeed performing those duties.

However, Carpenter said she could not discuss whether she actually performed policy work as a staff assistant. “I can’t answer that,” Carpenter told the BGA.

Earlier this year, Carpenter joined IDOT’s Division of Aeronautics as a data analyst, where she makes $52,872 a year. Her new job is listed as “Rutan-covered,” meaning she now cannot be fired for political reasons.

Carpenter said she works hard and doesn’t rely on her family connections.

“I’m good at what I do, and I know I’m good at what I do,” she said.

This article was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick McCraney.