Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider / YouTube IllinoisDOT
For nearly a year after the Better Government Association exposed widespread issues with clout hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation, agency secretary Ann Schneider stayed quiet. She refused to grant an interview to the BGA on the topic.
Last week, that changed. Schneider agreed to a 15-minute telephone interview where she admitted she’s “embarrassed” by the BGA’s findings. She discussed the original BGA investigation, the agency’s own audit that was launched after the BGA story and what happens next.
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The BGA story exposed massive hiring issues at the agency since 2003, with potentially hundreds of jobs wrongfully filled because of clout instead of qualifications, and, it appears, a deliberate attempt to evade a U.S. Supreme Court ruling meant to eliminate most patronage in state government. That decision, and the subsequent rules that were set up as part of it, are known as “Rutan,” named after case’s late plaintiff.
Just last week, Chicago attorney Mike Shakman filed a motion in U.S. District Court that aims to remove the patronage hires from their jobs, and have them filled through a fair process. In addition, Shakman wants a “monitor” set up to watch over state government hiring, like what he’s already successfully gone to court to put in place in the City of Chicago and some Cook County offices.
What follows is an edited transcript of the Q & A with Schneider:
Patrick McCraney/BGA: As you see it, what did IDOT do wrong when it comes to Rutan?
Ann Schneider/IDOT Secretary: Well, the way that I look at this is that we had gotten position descriptions that were sent over to [the Illinois Department of Central Management Services] for classification, and when they came back, they came back as Rutan-exempt [the job classification that allows a hire to be made based on politics]. We went through the Rutan-exempt hiring for those positions and, I think that as your story rightly pointed out last year, some of those people brought in under those position descriptions ended up performing duties outside of those position descriptions. Thankfully, to you, really, for bringing this to our attention, we found that perhaps people were not performing Rutan-exempt duties that they were hired to perform.
At that point, I thought it was important that we stopped hiring any of these staff assistant positions, and that we do a review of the processes related to the positions, and at the same time that we reviewed the process, that we also audited those positions. In other words, we did a desk audit, there was a team, a third-party, that we brought in to conduct interviews of the people in these positions to find out what their job duties were, also to interview their supervisors, to find out what it is their supervisors expect of those positions.
As a result of those interviews and that desk audit, we drew up these new job descriptions that more accurately reflect the work that these people were doing. Those descriptions were sent to CMS for re-classification, and we have just gotten back, really, just a couple days ago, and we were going through what we got back from CMS, but it appears based on what they sent back to us, that, it appears right now that 48 of the 60 positions, they’re performing Rutan-covered duties, so those are Rutan-covered positions, and 12 of those positions that were sent over came back as retaining their Rutan-exempt status.
The other thing I want to make sure you know is, as a result of all this, we thought it was important that we take care of some of the weaknesses that we found in the hiring process at the department, so that this does not happen again going forward. I would just say that when I took this job, the governor was very clear that we needed to follow the rules, and do everything appropriately, and we were under the assumption that that was taking place. And unfortunately, to my disappointment, that was not necessarily always the case for this group of a few people. I will say that for the vast majority of our hires, over 90 percent of our hires are for Rutan-covered positions, and those processes are absolutely tight. Also, one of the things that we reviewed when we were doing our review was to make sure that those processes were locked down as tight as they could be.
McCraney: The implication, from what a lot of people told me, was they believed the job descriptions were being deliberately manipulated to get around Rutan. Why do you think this was happening?
Schneider: I was not aware that that was the case. I was under the assumption that the job descriptions accurately reflected the work that those people would be doing when they came on board. And I had no reason to believe that that was not the case. Again, thanks to your investigative work, that was apparently wrong, and we were able to move in quickly and correct it. You know, I really don’t feel good about the fact that — I’m embarrassed it took an investigation of that nature to uncover this, but clearly it’s something that we don’t want to have happen in the department, and it’s something that we won’t tolerate going forward.
McCraney: Why wait until now to talk about it publicly?
Schneider: The reason is we were conducting this desk audit, and we were also having that process review done, and I thought it was really important for us to get the facts before we spoke publicly about what happened.
McCraney: So what happens to those people who you identified as being hired as exempt but doing covered jobs? What happens to them now?
Schneider: You know, we struggled with that, but about five years ago, those people were, against the department’s wishes, or over the objections of our agency, the labor relations board allowed those positions to go into the union. They’re covered by collective bargaining agreements, and because of that situation, we can only remove them for just cause. Anything beyond that, we would end up in some costly litigation, or costly grievance processes, really, should we remove them and have them come through the regular process. So, it’s something we looked at very closely, but at this point we feel like we’ve got to move forward.
McCraney: What about Mike Shakman’s idea – he wants the court to remove those people from their jobs, and he also wants to have a monitor put in place to watch over not just IDOT, but all of state government. What do you think of that idea?
Schneider: I think removing the people from these jobs would end up costing the state and the taxpayers a lot of money, because of the fact that they, unfortunately, did get covered by the collective bargaining agreement. And at this point I think that we, so to speak, cut our losses and move forward, and make sure that this does not happen again. In terms of the monitor for state government, I’m gonna leave that to the legal process, and see how that plays out. And, I do want to re-emphasize that the number of people that we’re talking about here, the number of positions we’re talking about here, compared to the overall agency is very small. That doesn’t, obviously, justify what happened, but I take a little solace in the fact that we’re not dealing with half the agency, that we’re dealing with just over 1 percent of the people there.
McCraney: What do you do now? What’s being done to restore proper Rutan hiring moving forward?
Schneider: So what we’re doing is, the first thing we’re doing is we’re gonna do a better job of writing our job descriptions. We’re gonna make sure that they accurately reflect the duties of the people that we want to bring on, the duties that they’re gonna be performing. The other thing that we want to do as part of that is to make sure that the job requirements match the job descriptions. A lot of our job requirements, historically, have been written pretty broadly by writing for, or including things like “prefers” or “recommends” certain qualifications. I think now we’re gonna look closely to make sure that they’re definitive qualifications, and that people can be assessed against. And the other thing is, I think that by making sure that we’ve done a good job with those job descriptions, and accurately reflecting the duties that they’re gonna be performing, that when we get that classification back from CMS, we can take comfort in the fact that it’s the correct classification, and we can use the correct hiring process for that.
McCraney: Rutan doesn’t give a percentage, or a total number of jobs that are appropriately exempt, but it does give the different classifications of work like “policy,” or “spokesperson,” or “confidential.” But based on numbers that Guy [Tridgell, IDOT spokesman] gave me earlier this week, you guys have about 5,200 employees, and roughly 300 are Rutan-exempt.
Schneider: That’s correct, I think it’s just over 300, and what I can tell you about the positions that are exempt — we have 13 different offices and divisions, each of those offices and divisions have directors. It’s very important in those positions to have people that are able to carry out the mission and the vision of the governor and the administration. Within that, we’ve also got deputy directors, there’s a number of deputy directors. We also have, there are 40 engineers at IDOT that are double-exempt [meaning exempt from both Rutan, and the state’s personnel code] positions, and those 40 engineers are all re-classified from a “Civil Engineer Trainee” all the way to a “Civil Engineer 10,” with 10 being the highest level. And, those 40 engineers are all a five or above, so they’re all in managerial roles, they’re all in roles to carry out what the agency does. We also have over 20 attorneys that are double-exempt. Our audit staff is also double-exempt. Our labor relations staff, our legislative and governmental affairs staff are double exempt. We also have what we call “Local Community Liaisons,” and these are folks that work for us that are out in the community and dealing with the mayors and the local elected officials and even with constituents, to address their transportation concerns, and also to help us with carrying out the mission of the organization, so they are also double-exempt. We have some support staff, we have some executive secretaries and administrative assistants, that support all of these people in these roles, that are privy to confidential conversations and information, and they are also considered double-exempt. One of the things that we wanted to make sure that we looked at as a result of all this is to make sure that positions are properly classified, and that based on what we’ve pulled together so far, we are confident that the positions that are classified as double-exempt, really should be double-exempt, for one of the double-exempt reasons, if not multiple reasons.
McCraney: I think Mike Shakman’s thought was, the total number of exempt positions should be – I think the way he said it was “you can count it on your fingers and your toes.” So you guys have around 300, he says it should be around 20. You’re confident you have the right number of exempt employees?
Schneider: I think that 20, for an organization of more than 5,200 people, that’s statewide, that covers nine different districts, and beyond those nine districts we have three other offices, people obviously have to run all of those locations, and make sure that the vision and mission of the administration is being carried out appropriately. And then, when we looked at the auditors, and the attorneys, obviously they are all privy to a lot of confidential information, and as we get into labor relations, for obvious reasons we want them to be double-exempt, non-union people, the legislative and governmental affairs are obviously speaking on behalf of the administration, and helping us to move policy through the General Assembly, and our local community liaisons are the same. I think if there was a review done of everybody who is classified for every position as double-exempt, I don’t think there would be much disagreement that where we’re at is closer to the appropriate level.
McCraney: I’ve heard a number of stories about political hires with clout who think that regular rules don’t apply to them, and non-political people can’t tell them what to do. How do you prevent that from happening?
Schneider: So, we will not tolerate that attitude by anybody, and if we have double-exempt employees that take the attitude that they don’t have to follow the rules, as soon as I become aware of it, I turn it over to our internal investigators for internal investigation, and we have fired people that were in double-exempt positions for doing just as you said, not following the rules. I’m hopeful and I hope that we send the message out to our staff that we have a culture of not accepting that type of behavior from our staff, and we want to make sure that everybody’s treated equally, and that everybody’s following the rules and procedures as they’re laid out in the personnel policy manual. I hope that everybody or anybody who runs in that situation that if they don’t get what they think should happen to happen, that they should always feel free to come to me and talk to me about those things, because that is something that is clearly not what we want to see happen in this organization. We have too many good things going on, and too much we have to accomplish, in order for us to really have to deliver top-notch transportation alternatives for people in Illinois to get tied up with having people do silly things like that. We just can’t tolerate that.
This interview was conducted by the BGA’s Patrick McCraney, who can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or firstname.lastname@example.org.