Is Clerk Karen Yarbrough ‘best official’ in county — or is patronage hiring flap only ‘tip of the iceberg’?

If true, the accusations laid out in the 12-page motion government watchdog Michael Shakman filed Wednesday suggest Yarbrough is injecting politics into an office tasked with maintaining the integrity of elections.

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Karen Yarbrough

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough at a news conference in January.

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

The Cook County clerk is typically a low-profile job.

Tasked with overseeing elections in more than 120 of the county’s suburbs; keeping official birth, marriage and death records; and maintaining delinquent tax records, the clerk’s office generally doesn’t draw much media attention.

But not even a year into her first term, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough is drawing plenty of attention — but she probably wishes she wasn’t.

Analysis bug

Analysis

In her second county government position, and second showdown with government watchdog Michael Shakman,Yarbrough has been accused of violating two consent decrees that bear Shakman’s name — entered in 1972 and 1991.

The decrees are designed to prevent political considerations in hiring decisions.

Shakman accuses Yarbrough of running“an illegal patronage employment system.” The allegations include hiringpolitical allies and asking employees to line her political coffers — asks that were sent to employees’ private cell phone numbers obtained from employment records.

If true, the accusations laid out in the 12-page motion Shakman filed Wednesday suggest Yarbrough is injecting politics into an office tasked with maintaining the integrity of elections.

It’s not inspiring a lot of trust in Yarbrough.

“It’s no grounds for removing anyone from office … but it speaks poorly of the job she’s doing,” said Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a former alderman.

Simpson said the new allegations represent “a terrible shame that the Cook County clerk’s office has moved back toward patronage hiring.”

“Usually, patronage hiring is a symptom of machine politics influencing activities in the office,” he said. “It’s usually sort of the tip of the iceberg that suggests that corruption will be part of any particular office, and for that to be true of the clerk’s office, which has been a beacon of good government under [former clerk] David Orr, is, I think, a real problem.”

Orr said it’s “very disappointing” to hear about these latest allegations of “political interference with people’s jobs.”

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough at a press conference on January 28, 2019.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough at a press conference on Jan. 28, 2019.

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Problems have popped up before in Yarbrough’s political career.

Before she was elected clerk, Yarbrough was the county’s recorder of deeds. She ran afoul of Shakman in that office, too, putting at least one family member on her payroll and hiring political pals. Yarbrough said county ethics rules against such hiring practices didn’t apply to her as an independently elected official.

Then there’s the taxpayer-funded field trip she and 10 top staffers took in 2017. At a cost of $12,303.09, Yarbrough and her recorder of deeds staff spent two nights at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa for an “Executive Staff Leadership Retreat.”

When asked whether the getaway was a good use of taxpayers’ money,there was no question in Yarbrough’s mind:”Oh, absolutely.”

Yarbrough is also vice chair of the Illinois Democratic Party and committeeman of Proviso Township for the Cook County Democratic Party — political positions that could raise questions about her current role as the overseer of elections.

Then Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough, and Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico. From Facebook.

Then Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough and Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico.

From Facebook.

Under Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele, Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin was designated the commissioner who would go to federal court to work out Shakman oversight of the county.

Suffredin said “it’s disturbing that we’re back at this point.”

In his motion, Shakman asks for the court to appoint a compliance administrator to the clerk’s office “to investigate and recommend appropriate reforms in the Clerk’s employment practices for non-exempt positions and to monitor the Clerk’s hiring and other employment practices to assure compliance with prior Court orders” as well as the “implementation ofof reporting and disclosure procedures to prevent future violations of prior Court orders,” among other things.

Cardelle Spangler, who is the federally appointed compliance administrator for the recorder of deeds office, documented numerous instances of Shakman violations during Yarbrough’s tenure. They included “issues from consistently deficient hiring paperwork to suspicious interviews and [employee] selection meetings” to instances when Yarbrough would get involved in hiring processes in that office — an interference that went against an “express agreement”that Yarbrough “would have no role in any hiring process,” according to Spangler’s December report.

While she’s “not in the business of predicting the future,” Spangler hoped if the clerk’s office is brought under federal oversight, Yarbrough would do “what’s needed to get out” of Shakman, which is something she said is “imminently achievable.”

To be freed from federal oversight, the clerk’s office would have to work with a monitor to develop hiring plans and a new list of positions exempt from the Shakman decrees.

“At the end of the day, it’s something that will benefit all of the taxpayers of Cook County,” Spangler said. “It takes a real … commitment to put these policies first, and that can be a difficult thing to do when you are used to being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

“Having somebody there telling you ‘no, you can’t’ can be a difficult thing to hear and abide by ... If you have (the) commitment and have the right people in place and give it time for policies to work ... you’ll get there.”

Whether Yarbrough decides to do that, “will be up to her,” Spangler said.

County Clerk Karen A. Yarbrough, left, officiates at the wedding of the first couple —  David Lakoskey, 54, and Kristina Skare, 42, — to married in Cook County in 2019.

County Clerk Karen A. Yarbrough, left, officiates at the wedding of the first couple — David Lakoskey, 54, and Kristina Skare, 42, — to married in Cook County in 2019. File Photo.

Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

John Mirkovic, the deputy clerk of communications for the clerk’s office, said Yarbrough isn’t being accused of running the office poorly, and the “allegations do not connect to the assumption that the office is being conducted poorly.”

“We’ve already proven that we know how to run this office effectively, and Yarbrough is probably the best official in the county at cutting costs and running an efficient office,” Mirkovic said. “We strongly deny the intent to link these false claims in court to the effectiveness of services delivered in this office.”

Brian Hays, one of the lawyers for the Shakman class plaintiffs, said they’re not focusing on any specific person but on “making sure substantial compliance can be achieved” should a compliance administrator be appointed.

And the “driving factor” behind achieving that is “commitment at the top,” he said.

“Under Daley, the city didn’t make much progress — when Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel took over, he was able to get the city into substantial compliance within 18 months,” Hays said. “Then there’s the opposite side of that: the recorder of deeds office. Yarbrough was the recorder of deeds for six years and wasn’t able to achieve compliance for that office.”

Hays isn’t worried, though.

If Yarbrough decides she wants to do it, “she’s more than able to achieve compliance and sunset the decree.”

But for Simpson the allegations are an alarm bell.

“Voters should absolutely be concerned about the increase of patronage back into county government,” Simpson said. “If patronage re-enters our system in a significant way, it undermines democracy itself.”

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