Yarbrough calls ‘illegal patronage’ allegations ‘baseless’

The Cook County clerk’s attorney fired back at Michael Shakman, a government watchdog who accused Yarbrough of operating an “illegal patronage employment system,” in a response filed Friday.

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Karen Yarbrough

Karen Yarbrough

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough wants a federal judge to free her office from two anti-patronage decrees related to her office months after a government watchdog accused her of running an “illegal patronage employment system.”

The request, which was filed Friday, comes in response to a motion filed in September by Michael Shakman, the watchdog who alleged the clerk violated two consent decrees –entered in 1972 and 1991 – in multiple ways, including instituting a rotation policy “to make life so unbearable” for some supervisors “that they have little choice but to resign” freeing up the spots for Yarbrough’s political pals.

Shakman also accused Yarbrough of texting employees’ private cell phone numbers to ask for political contributions and asked for U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier to intervene and place a federal monitor in the office.

In her response, Yarbrough says the office hasn’t really been involved in the Shakman litigation since 2002 — when the compliance reports filed by a federal monitor appointed to the office ended — and that Shakman didn’t do anything when her predecessor, David Orr, allegedly violated Shakman rules.

“Plaintiffs waited 28 years to bring the Clerk into this litigation,” Yarbrough’s response reads. “During that time, Clerk Orr changed his exempt list without seeking court approval. But Plaintiffs never complained that Clerk Orr changed his exempt list.

“This Court should not allow Plaintiffs to ignore an alleged violation of a consent decree by Plaintiffs’ favored officeholder for decades, only to raise the same alleged violation to justify extraordinary relief upon the election of a disfavored officeholder. Such conduct prejudices the Clerk and is antithetical to the democratic process.”

Shakman hadn’t read Yarbrough’s response but said he never received any allegations of wrongdoing against Orr and said he would have if there was.

“We had a long history of difficulty with [Yarbrough],” Shakman said. “We had report after report from the monitor that indicated serious problems.”

Once Yarbrough assumed the office, Shakman and his team “almost immediately tried to find some justification to file a claim against her,” Yarbrough’s attorney alleges in the filing.

Shakman’s lawyer filed a Freedom of Information Act Request seeking documents related to hirings within the office and whether employment with the clerk was based upon “recommendation from any political official.”

To Yarbrough and her attorneys, “it thus seems apparent Plaintiffs’ issue is not with the office, but the office holder.”

Brian Hays, who represents Shakman and the other plaintiffs, said the plaintiffs didn’t file the motion because they “have a vendetta against [Yarbrough],” it’s “because employees came to us with credible allegations that the clerk was engaged in unlawful political discrimination. After investigating those we filed our motion to enforce the decrees.”

Yarbrough is in her second county government position. As the former recorder of deeds, Yarbrough ran afoul of Shakman in that office, too, for putting at least one family member on her payroll and hiring political allies. At the time, Yarbrough said county ethics rules against such hiring practices didn’t apply to her as an independently elected official.

But the clerk’s office has left politics out of its rotation policy and her attorney argued Shakman’s “allegations are nothing more than baseless theories that have already been disproven.” The policy required supervisors to rotate every 90 days to a new branch office until each had worked in the Bridgeview, Markham, Maywood, Rolling Meadows and Skokie offices.

Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard found the office was acting in good faith with its rotation policy and there was “no evidence to support the conclusion that the [rotation policy] is being implemented pre textually for political purposes…,” according to the response. 

Because of that finding, the court “should not permit plaintiffs to try to set aside the Inspector General’s determination when they disagree with it, all at additional cost to Cook County taxpayers.”

Yarbrough’s team also says accusations about texts “soliciting” donations are made “without any evidence” and the one text referenced — which shows an invitation to a fundraising event — is not enough evidence to assert “the Clerk rummaged through employee records” and is not a violation of the consent decrees.

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