undefinedPatronage politics appears to be alive and well in Illinois government nearly 25 years after the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically limited political hiring, firing and promotions in the state’s estimated 53,000-person workforce.

A four-month investigation by the Better Government Association found one of the biggest agencies under Gov. Pat Quinn’s control – the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT – has been skirting hiring guidelines adopted in the wake of the 1990 court ruling. It means that over the past decade, hundreds of jobs may have been wrongly filled because of clout instead of competence.

Among the BGA’s findings:

  • The state’s executive inspector general is investigating hiring irregularities, and has interviewed a number of former state-government employees.
  • Since 2003, IDOT officials routinely manipulated job descriptions as a means to get around court-ordered hiring rules.
  • In many cases, once political hires were made they did not fulfill the responsibilities in their job descriptions.
  • The number of political hires at IDOT jumped by 63 percent in the last decade, while the number of highway road maintainers plummeted by nearly 800 posts.
  • Those who landed on the state payroll through the questionable hiring process include the daughter of a retired Chicago alderman, and a son of a politically connected businessman who once sat on the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board.

The BGA learned the state’s executive inspector general – the in-house government watchdog – has been investigating possible hiring abuses in the Quinn administration since at least last year, although it’s unclear whether wrongdoing has been confirmed. The inspector general’s office refused to comment. IDOT officials would say very little because, they indicated, the investigation is ongoing.

Historically the politically oriented jobs are nonunion, and those types of employees could be fired at will. In contrast, apolitical hires are often unionized and protected even with a change in governors.

But even if it’s determined state officials violated “Rutan” rules – so named because the late Cynthia Bard Rutan was a plaintiff against the Illinois Republican Party and then-Gov. Jim Thompson in the case that ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court – there likely will be few if any consequences, the BGA found. What’s more, there’s little to prevent problems from reoccurring.

The Rutan rules

Under Rutan, the Downstate equivalent of the Chicago area’s “Shakman” decrees, almost all state hiring is supposed to be apolitical. There are some exceptions, though. Jobs that include policy-making and media responsibilities are a couple of examples. Basically, a governor can hire whomever he or she wants for an inner circle, but for all other state jobs the hiring process should be impartial. However, there’s no set number of political vs. apolitical jobs.

Here are the nuts and bolts of hiring right now in state government: IDOT (or any other state agency) decides there’s a need for a certain type of worker to be hired, so agency officials craft a job description and give it to the state Department of Central Management Services, or CMS, which like IDOT is under Quinn’s control.

CMS makes the call on whether the job should be Rutan-exempt – in other words, whether a person can be hired based on subjective standards, including politics, or not. CMS then gives the requesting agency permission to make the hire under the acceptable category.

If the person is OK’d as a political hire, he or she is still supposed to be competent, but agency officials can basically hire anyone they want. If the person is an apolitical hire, his or her qualifications and work history and the like are supposed to be taken into account by the agency. That type of hire is supposed to be impartial.

Historically the politically oriented jobs are nonunion, and those types of employees could be fired at will. In contrast, apolitical hires are often unionized and protected even with a change in governors.

How IDOT beat the system

The lines started getting blurry in 2003. Just after then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office, IDOT began hiring “staff assistants,” a new job title for the agency, and appeared to tailor job descriptions in an effort to get CMS to sign off on them as Rutan-exempt, even though they probably shouldn’t have been, according to interviews and documents obtained by the BGA under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

So what were once low-level clerical jobs were assigned duties – at least on paper – that included media- or policy-related responsibilities, even though in many cases the eventual hires weren’t performing those responsibilities.

Documents obtained by the BGA show some of those hired into political positions had little or no work history, including a bartender, a truck driver and a community college student.

That enabled IDOT officials to basically hire whomever they wanted – opening the door to patronage and violating the letter and spirit of Rutan, the BGA found.

“They tried to manipulate Rutan however they could,” said a now-former high-level state government official, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. The official worked for state government for part of the 10-year period in question and was in a position to know about Rutan-related hiring.

Another former state manager, who also agreed to be interviewed if he was not named, described a steady flow of political hires dropped into the laps of IDOT managers, who had little or no knowledge of what duties were actually included in job descriptions.

“When you get somebody sent to you, you usually didn’t turn your back on too many of them,” the former state manager said. “It’s no different than it ever was. You’re never going to change that in Illinois.”

When asked if the staff assistants were performing policy or spokesperson duties, the former state manager responded with one word – “no.”

What’s more, the BGA found IDOT routinely allows managers to sign other people’s names on documents. It means many of the managers who supposedly “signed off” on the job descriptions may not have seen them.

Documents obtained by the BGA show some of those hired into political positions had little or no work history, including a bartender, a truck driver and a community college student.

The hires made under the questionable “staff assistant” process include Monica Schulter, daughter of former Chicago Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th). She was hired as a staff assistant in 2010, and now makes $58,000 as an assistant to IDOT’s top administrator, Ann Schneider. When reached by phone, Monica Schulter declined to answer questions, however Eugene Schulter did.

“I’ve been out of politics almost three years now,” Eugene Schulter said. “I had nothing to do with my daughter’s employment now. She’s a well-educated woman. She has a master’s degree. She’s quite qualified.”

Schneider wouldn’t return calls from the BGA.

John Andalcio, son of former Illinois Tollway Director David Andalcio, was promoted to staff assistant in 2008, a $48,000-a-year position he still holds. John Andalcio had previously been working as a seasonal highway maintainer at the agency, his father said via email. (While the toll authority oversees state roadways that levy tolls, IDOT’s domain is more vast, maintaining Chicago-area freeways such as the Dan Ryan, Eisenhower and Kennedy expressways, and state roads across Illinois.)

David Andalcio wouldn’t say whether he had any role in his son’s hiring or promotion. The son did not return calls.

All told, IDOT has hired more than 200 “staff assistants” since 2003, under the watch of both Blagojevich and Quinn. Records show that practice stopped late last year, apparently after the inspector general launched its investigation.

Governor Pat Quinn / IDOT Facebook

A Quinn aide said the governor – whose office is not involved with all hiring, but which sees the names of all political hires before they’re formally brought on board – takes the allegations seriously.

“The governor has always made clear that every state agency must follow the rules regarding personnel,” said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.

Quinn’s Democratic primary challenger, former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, told the BGA that Quinn must have known about the Rutan violations, and at best looked the other way.

“Pat Quinn has done this stuff so much he’s a master at it,” said Daley, who comes from a family where patronage was a way of life. Daley’s brother, former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, saw top political operatives go to prison over rigged hiring decisions. Bill Daley brushed aside questions about his own family’s patronage past.

“I’m talking about me, and what I’ll do as a leader. I’m not talking about anybody else, 10 years ago or 50 years ago,” he said.

Rutan’s Flaws

Rutan is similar to the Shakman decrees that restrict political hiring, firing and promotions in City of Chicago and Cook County governments. But there are significant differences. First off, Rutan has no employment “monitors” proactively looking for hiring violations, though the state’s inspector general can initiate an investigation following a tip. Second, Rutan carries few penalties, with firing the most extreme punishment. Under Shakman, violators can be found in contempt of court and fined or even jailed.

Another flaw with the hiring process under Rutan: when someone’s put on the state payroll under a “Rutan-exempt” job description – in other words, the written duties for the post have characteristics of a political hire – there’s little or no follow-up on whether he or she is actually performing the outlined duties.

Also, the lack of employment monitors under Rutan can make it easier for political figures to place relatives, friends and political supporters onto the state payroll – as was the practice for decades before the Rutan court ruling.

“Rutan is a court order that was entered without any real enforcement,” said Michael Shakman, the Chicago attorney who successfully sued to create the federal consent decrees bearing his name. “There’s no real way to police it, and there’s no real way to monitor what’s going on at the state level.”

So what now?

The hiring could potentially have a negative impact on the state’s already-strained finances. If an IDOT job applicant could prove he or she was wrongfully passed over in favor of someone because of political clout, they could have a legal claim for damages, Shakman said.

There’s another problem. Normally, people hired in exempt positions could easily be fired by a new administration. That’s not the case here. Most of these staff assistants have been unionized, giving them far more job security.

This article was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick McCraney. He can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or pmccraney@bettergov.org. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickmccraney.