SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Pat Quinn’s unexpected move to deal with a scathing report about political hiring in his administration will not put the jobs scandal to rest as he mounts a difficult campaign for re-election.
Quinn aides announced last week that the state Department of Transportation was laying off 58 people at the center of a state investigator’s findings that more than 250 people were improperly hired for political reasons at the agency over the past decade. The report found that the questionable hiring of “staff assistants” accelerated under Quinn, despite his claims to have cleaned up the practices of his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich.
But the layoffs raise more questions about the administration’s handling of the issue, contradicting earlier decisions to merely reclassify rather than eliminate the positions. And they could open the state to lawsuits by the laid-off employees, something IDOT officials said they wanted to avoid last spring.
“They obviously recognize they have a big problem,” said Michael Shakman, a Chicago attorney and anti-corruption campaigner who has filed a federal lawsuit seeking better monitoring of state hiring.
IDOT officials said Friday that the employees would be laid off under a “material reorganization,” the same explanation the agency gave when Blagojevich, a Democrat, fired 16 employees with Republican affiliations in 2003. A jury declared in 2011 they had been fired for political reasons and a settlement gave the fired workers millions of dollars in back pay, restored pension benefits, and put them back in state jobs.
The issue boiled over in April when Shakman filed a federal court petition asking for the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee IDOT hiring. He was responding to a Better Government Association report in August 2013 that detailed the practice.
Under a court decree known as “Rutan,” most government jobs are supposed to be filled through merit and insulated from political considerations. But the decree allows a governor to hire political loyalists for positions that involve confidential information, policy making or public statements.
On Friday, the state’s executive inspector general, Ricardo Meza, reported that 255 people were hired as staff assistants, often with political or family clout connections, but were put to work mowing grass, answering phones, and doing other jobs that should be open to any applicants. The number of those hirings jumped after Quinn took over.
Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, Quinn’s challenger in the November election, seized on the report and said the patronage revelations “are just one more reminder why we need term limits on career politicians like Pat Quinn.”
The acting transportation secretary, Erica Borggren, pre-empted Meza’s report Thursday by announcing the layoffs, the creation of a merit board to oversee agency hiring, and an indefinite freeze on filling any IDOT jobs based on political considerations.
Last May, then-secretary Ann Schneider told a Senate committee that the agency would not fire any of the employees, because they were covered by union rules and dismissing them would invite costly lawsuits. But on Friday, IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said keeping the employees on the payroll would have required creating new positions for them that were covered by the hiring rules.
“We determined that ... eliminating the staff assistant position was the best path forward to ensure integrity,” he said.
Carl Draper, a Springfield-based attorney who represented the 16 employees who sued Blagojevich, said it wouldn’t be inconceivable for the 58 employees to argue in court that the inspector general found they were doing work protected by the Rutan rules, so they can’t be fired without cause. Key to his case was showing “the jury that there was no material reorganization.”
“It sounds to me more like [in this case] the material reorganization is, ‘We’re firing all the people that the [news media have] now reported as having gotten Rutan-protected jobs and we shouldn’t have hired them that way,” Draper said.
The terminations also render moot a time-consuming, months-long process the administration says it had undertaken to reclassify the IDOT jobs.
After Shakman’s court petition in April, the agency said it had reviewed the jobs in question and had decided they needed to reclassified. But this month, in response to a public records request by The Associated Press, the administration said the reclassifications had only been preliminary and the process wasn’t finished.
Shakman said he would push ahead with his demand for an independent monitor to review state employment.
“Firing 58 people and setting up a merit board isn’t necessarily the answer to that problem,” Shakman said, adding that only an outside monitor could “figure out why did it happen, where else did it happen, and how do you prevent this kind of thing from happening elsewhere?”