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Noelle Brennan | AP file

Court monitor wants to sign off on IDOT political appointments

SHARE Court monitor wants to sign off on IDOT political appointments
SHARE Court monitor wants to sign off on IDOT political appointments

A federal court-appointed monitor said Wednesday she wants to sign off on all political hires, promotions or transfers within the problem-plagued Illinois Department of Transportation until the agency audits its employment mess.

Special Master Noelle Brennan also said the ability of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s new IDOT director to fire “at will” past IDOT political appointees has been “undercut” by the transfer of many of such hires into union positions that carry job protections.

Brennan said there was an “inherent conflict” between a legal political position, in which a person can be hired based on political affiliation and fired “at will,” and a unionized one “with contractual rights concerning termination.”

“Although IDOT has hired hundreds of individuals based on political factors, because of the terms of existing union contracts, IDOT’s new administration may not be able to fire those same individuals, based on political factors,” Brennan wrote in a 30-page initial report to U.S. Magistrate Sidney Schenkier.

Rauner’s press secretary, Catherine Kelly, said late Thursday that Brennan’s report “confirms that previous governors were engaged in a corrupt bargain with government unions, making illegal political hires and putting them into protected government union positions.”

Rauner is “committed to reversing the illegal hiring scheme and enacting civil service reforms that will prevent these types of abuses from happening in the future,” Kelly said.

In a series of recommendations, Brennan urged either IDOT or the state’s Central Management Services to conduct an audit to determine which IDOT positions meet the legal test to be hired as political appointees and thus “Rutan-exempt” — a reference to the 1990 Supreme Court Rutan case involving political patronage.

In the meantime, Brennan recommended that IDOT give her office seven days prior notice of any political appointment, transfer or promotion so she can register an objection, seek further information or take no action to block it.

Brennan’s report also noted that the Rauner administration has not agreed to one of Brennan’s recommendations — that IDOT immediately stop hiring, transferring or promoting employees into political positions that are also are union jobs.

“The state agreed in principle with this recommendation,” Brennan wrote, but it refused to implement it “on the ground that the recommendation could cripple some current IDOT operations.”

Brennan gave as an example a state contention that the recommendation would gum up IDOT attempts to hire four attorneys for the IDOT Office of Chief Counsel into political positions that are also unionized.

Even the attorney who filed the suit that led to Brennan’s appointment was puzzled by this example.

“It makes no sense to me whatsoever,” attorney Michael Shakman said.

“Lawyers are not generally unionized, and if they are, it doesn’t make sense to be Rutan-exempt [or a political hire]. If they are performing a job that deserves to be unionized, fine, then they shouldn’t be hired on a political basis.”

In an even more sweeping suggestion, Brennan said her investigation into IDOT’s employment practices raised “serious concerns” about the unionization of political appointees across other state departments. As a result, she recommended that the governor’s office conduct an audit that would identify — across every state agency under its control — all political hires covered by a union.

Brennan said her preliminary investigation found that 189 IDOT political appointees hold union-covered jobs under as many as 84 different job titles. She called the “unionization” of “Rutan-exempt” patronage workers a “pervasive problem” that “requires further investigation.”

Shakman has alleged that IDOT had been improperly creating or reclassifying “staff assistant” positions as political hires, even though they were performing routine jobs. His action followed a Better Government Association investigation into IDOT patronage under former governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn.

An inspector general’s report later found that hiring rules had been skirted at IDOT since 2003 but could not conclude that Quinn’s office was aware of the abuse of “staff assistant” positions. Meanwhile, the judge in Shakman’s case appointed Brennan as a “special master” to investigate and report on IDOT employment practices.

Brennan reported Wednesday that “there is evidence concerning the involvement of the Governor’s Office that has not been fully explored” and “further investigation is required into the Governor’s Office’s role in the misuse of the position” of staff assistant.

Brennan also raised questions about IDOT political appointees being hired into “technical” positions but given non-technical work; about IDOT appointment of 60-day emergency hires without any oversight or competitive process; and about “seasonal” positions being hired by district officials with “very little oversight.”

She noted that IDOT hired a consultant after the inspector general launched his investigation, but a majority of the consultant’s recommendations were never implemented.

And despite later recommendations from the inspector general, IDOT “continues to struggle” with following the law on political patronage, Brennan wrote, and “further corrective action is necessary.”

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