Karen Yarbrough didn’t waste any time in exerting clout at the Cook County recorder of deeds office, which she was elected to oversee earlier this month.
In fact, she didn’t even wait until she was elected.
In late September, roughly six weeks before the Nov. 6 general election that saw Yarbrough voted into the county post, she tried to halt all hiring at the agency until she was able to take office, according to documents reviewed by the Better Government Association and FOX 32, and interviews.
The suspicion was Yarbrough, a Maywood Democrat who has been serving as a state representative, wanted to ultimately fill any open jobs with her political supporters.
The problem: aside from the brazenness of trying to influence an agency she didn’t technically run yet, Yarbrough may have violated a federal court order known as the “Shakman Decree” that is intended to minimize politically motivated hiring, firing and promotions in local government, according to the documents, and interviews.
Of the 200 or so jobs in the recorder of deeds office – which keeps real estate records relating to sales and foreclosures, among other things – only a half dozen can be filled with political appointees, under the court order. The rest of the jobs are supposed to be filled in an objective manner.
On Sept. 20, the recorder’s office publicized a job opening to find someone to help run the agency’s mapping division, a hire that’s supposed to be devoid of political considerations.
The next day, Yarbrough campaign aide Bill Velazquez met with a top recorder’s office employee named Darlena Williams-Burnett to relay that Yarbrough “was displeased with the recent posting,” according to a recent report filed by a court-appointed monitor.
What’s more, Velazquez wanted the agency “to cease attempting to fill any and all vacant positions through the remainder of its administration,” the report stated.
Williams-Burnett “attempted to explain to Mr. Velazquez that she had a duty to maintain a staff capable of servicing the public but . . . Mr. Velazquez was not swayed,” according to the report. She also told Velazquez the agency “was filling these positions not by political appointment but through public postings in accordance with their Shakman obligations.”
The report relayed that on Sept. 26 Yarbrough wrote an email to Williams-Burnett, saying Yarbrough was “extremely disappointed that several high-level hires are being made.” The email ends somewhat ominously, with Yarbrough writing: “I am clear that you do not work for me neither are we colleagues, therefore, you owe me nothing. But, in light of our face-to-face meeting of the minds several months ago, I hopefully expected consideration, collaboration and information. You may have ‘gone through this before’ with other officeholders however it was not with Karen Yarbrough. I look forward to November and beyond and whatever it presents.”
Williams-Burnett, wife of Chicago Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), is the No. 2 person in the recorder’s office, behind retiring Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore. Her job isn’t among the half-dozen positions that can be filled with political appointees, but her position likely will be put into that category soon because the list is being revamped, officials said. In other words, Williams-Burnett could rightfully be worried about losing her job under Yarbrough.
Although Williams-Burnett said the fear of losing her job wasn’t her motivation – she was trying “to extend some level of cooperation” – she reversed course and decided not to fill the mapping job or six other non-political posts, the report stated.
Williams-Burnett’s actions were “plain violations” of the Shakman Decree, the report stated, and the county’s inspector general, the in-house investigative watchdog, began an investigation that’s believed to be ongoing. It included an Oct. 26 interview with Yarbrough and her attorney, according to the report.
Yarbrough, who has close political ties to Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-Chicago), didn’t return phone calls from reporters.
However, her aides relayed that Yarbrough’s intentions were pure, designed to halt 11th- hour political hiring by Moore that she’d later have to undo.
Yarbrough “wanted to be sure that, should she be the successful candidate on November 6th, she would not inherit more problems created by her predecessor’s office,” Velazquez said via email.
“I personally know that Karen Yarbrough supports the implementation of the Shakman Decree to its fullest and is committed to carrying out the court’s mandate,” Velazquez said. “There is no one that wants that office cleaned up more than Ms. Yarbrough.”
The agency “has a history of political patronage hiring and blatant violations of the Shakman Decree.”
That’s true, and the reason why the recorder’s office is still subject to the Shakman Decree – named for Chicago attorney Michael Shakman, whose 1969 federal lawsuit challenged the patronage system in local government and resulted in court-sanctioned agreements limiting political hiring. (A court monitor was appointed by a judge to keep watch over hiring and issue periodic reports, which are public.)
Moore denied trying to pack the rolls on his way out the door and said Yarbrough, a long-time political foe, wanted to halt hiring so she could put more of her people on the county payroll.
“She was trying to dictate policy before she even got there,” Moore said.
Williams-Burnett also said the implication from Velazquez and Yarbrough was they wanted the jobs to fill with their allies. Williams-Burnett said the pair appeared to be “clueless” about the hiring restrictions in place through the Shakman Decree.
Yarbrough won the Democratic primary for recorder of deeds in March, and faced a Republican opponent in the November general election. However, Democrats almost always win countywide elections in Cook County because the city and suburbs are so heavily Democratic, so Yarbrough’s post-primary confidence was not unusual.
But could her intrusion into hiring get her into trouble?
That’s not clear. The inspector general’s office has the authority to recommend penalties in some instances, but it’s uncertain whether it could do so here. In an interview, Shakman said someone doesn’t have to work for the county to run foul of the decree bearing his name, and could ultimately face contempt of court citations in federal court.
Regardless, Shakman said of Yarbrough, “Maybe she’s got an innocent explanation, maybe she doesn’t, but it does reflect an insensitivity to what she should know about the office she’s running for, which is it’s under a federal court order, and that order is intended to eliminate patronage playing a role, politics playing a role, in hiring.”
“For her to call up as a candidate to say ‘stop the hiring process’ raises serious questions.”
Yarbrough is supposed to formally take office Monday, making $105,000 a year.
Over the years, reformers have questioned why the agency needs to exist, and some have suggested merging it with other agencies, including the Cook County clerk’s office to streamline operations and save taxpayer money.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth, and Dane Placko of FOX 32. They can be reached at (312) 821-9030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.