Governor Pat Quinn’s administration not only failed to rein-in political hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation, the practice seems to have gone into high gear after Quinn took over from disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich.
A new report from the Office of the Executive Inspector General found that scores of employees were hired into what were supposed to be non-political positions, many referred by influential legislators, often with no qualifications for the jobs they were given.
“There’s no indication governor Quinn approved every one of these hires,” said Executive Inspector General Riccardo Meza. “We did not find that Governor Quinn himself recommended anyone.”
But Meza said for 10 years, the rules at IDOT should have been clear, and were openly flaunted.
“The duration and pervasiveness of IDOT’s improper acts have undoubtedly denied countless qualified candidates the opportunity to lawfully obtain state employment on the basis of merit,” the report states, charging that in some cases, individuals were hired into slots reserved for political hires, then moved into what should have been jobs reserved for the most qualified applicants.
Investigators said they found that employees hired for what were described as policy positions, were actually engaged in jobs like secretarial work, mowing lawns at state rest stops, or power washing trucks.
The investigation found that the improper hiring practices “exploded” in 2003 under Blagojevich, but seemed to go into high gear in 2010 and 2011 under Quinn’s tenure, dropping significantly after the probe was revealed. And while the report finds no evidence that Quinn had any knowledge of the rampant political hires, investigators seemed to suggest that in some cases, the practice may have been one of expediency more than politics.
Still, there is evidence that qualified employees were speaking up.
“I consider this constant stream of new, unqualified, and sometimes useless individuals offensive, as both a taxpayer, and a professional employee,” one employee of the Division of Aeronautics wrote Schneider in late 2011. “The current staff is being told to ‘train’ them, or find things for them to do.”
“The positions filled by political people were not expected to play by the same rules as those who came in the front door,” another employee said.
“It was understood that people who were employed because of their political connections may be doing less or different duties for the same pay as others employed in the same title, and who had to compete for their jobs.”
The clout-heavy list of political sponsors or referrals, ranged from House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, to various committeemen and state legislators. The report listed the daughter of former 47th ward alderman Eugene Schulter as among the beneficiaries, along with State Senator Kimberly Lightford’s husband.
On Thursday, anticipating the report’s release, IDOT said various hiring reforms had been implemented, and that 58 workers had been laid off. Schneider, the former director, resigned last month, but in a stinging response to the report, suggested she had only taken orders from the top.
“It is my recollection that the vast majority…were chosen from those recommended to me or my staff by the governor’s office,” Schneider wrote. “Neither I, nor my staff, were in a position to reject the recommended individuals for these exempt positions, because no additional interviews were required.”
Schneider did not return a phone call seeking comment, but a source close to the former director said she had been “thrown under the bus,” and that she was receiving support from throughout the state.
The state’s new transportation chief, says reforms demanded by the governor are already in place.
“This is a problem more than five decades in the making, but one we are taking steps to address,” said acting secretary Erica Borggren. “My concern is with the known issues inside the agency, and what we’re doing to fix them.”
The IDOT affair quickly became fodder for the campaign trail. Republican Bruce Rauner said it was proof positive that political patronage is alive and well on Quinn’s watch.
“Even back in 2010 Pat Quinn made statements that he was dealing with patronage inside his administration and ending patronage inside his administration,” Rauner said. “Patronage looks like it’s accelerating from the information that is coming forth now.”
But the Quinn campaign seized on the report’s finding that Quinn himself had no direct involvement in the hires.
“The governor inherited those problems from the previous administration,” said campaign spokesman Brooke Anderson. “The report makes clear that the governor was not aware of those problems.”