Students at South Suburban College could learn a valuable lesson from the board members running the South Holland school: it pays – quite literally – to have relatives with clout.
A Better Government Association analysis found that at least seven relatives of board members have been hired by the taxpayer-funded community college over the years, and those relatives are collectively drawing pay of about $340,000 annually.
The BGA also found four instances in which board members voted to hire their family members – a clear conflict of interest.
What’s more, the BGA discovered that South Suburban’s board chairman, Frank Zuccarelli, a Democratic Party stalwart in the south suburbs, has accepted thousands of dollars in campaign money from some of the same employees who are related to board members.
Overall, the BGA found through interviews that Zuccarelli has three relatives on the books:
- His cousin Robin Rihacek. She’s the $68,000-a-year director of enrollment services at South Suburban. Zuccarelli voted in 2003 to hire Rihacek. Since 2004, Rihacek has donated more than $9,000 to political funds controlled by Zuccarelli, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
- Jeff Rihacek, her husband. He’s the director of academic computing and telecommunications and makes about $77,000 annually. Zuccarelli, who also serves as the Thornton Township supervisor, abstained on the 2009 vote to hire him.
- A “distant” cousin, Phillip “Tom” Tomich. He’s a manager in the college’s job training department, and makes about $58,000 a year. Zuccarelli voted to hire Tomich in 1995, and since then Tomich has donated more than $8,600 to Zuccarelli’s campaign funds, campaign records show.
Zuccarelli said in hindsight he should have abstained from voting in at least one instance, but he added: “We’ve never done anything [wrong] intentionally.”
Click to view larger image
Many public agencies have anti-nepotism policies – which the BGA supports, because taxpayer-funded jobs should be filled based on qualifications, not blood-lines or political affiliations – but the school has no rule prohibiting the hiring of relatives, said school spokesman Patrick Rush.
Meanwhile, Trustee Katie Jackson Booker, who recently died, has a daughter and granddaughter on the payroll.
Booker’s granddaughter, Tiffane Jones, works as a manager in the admissions and recruitment department. Booker voted in 2004 to hire Jones, who makes about $44,000. She donated $400 to a Zuccarelli campaign fund in 2006, state records show.
A year later, in 2007, South Suburban Trustee Terry Wells voted to hire nephew Calvin Wells, who works in the college’s maintenance department and is paid about $34,000 a year, according to interviews.
This isn’t the first time Zuccarelli has been in the news. In 2011, the BGA reported about his six-figure salary as Thornton Township supervisor and his appointment to the Cook County Employees Appeals Board – both are taxpayer-funded posts and may lead to public-sector pensions. Also, in 2009 FOX 32 found South Suburban faculty and students working the streets on Election Day on behalf of Zuccarelli – a seeming conflict of interest.
He is not paid for sitting on the board at South Suburban.
The college offers two-year degrees, and in the average year has 17,000 students enrolled. The school, which employs about 800 people, draws from more than 20 south suburbs, including: Blue Island, Burnham, Calumet City, Country Club Hills, Dixmoor, Dolton, East Hazel Crest, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Homewood, Lansing, Lynwood, Markham, Midlothian, Oak Forest, Phoenix, Posen, Riverdale, South Holland, Thornton and Tinley Park.