Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza / www2.illinois.gov

The public-sector watchdog tasked with rooting out corruption and inappropriate political influence in state government is doing a crummy job.

At least that’s the message we took from remarks made by anti-patronage attorney/crusader Michael Shakman after a court hearing this week, referring to Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza.

“If he were doing his job, we wouldn’t be here today. Or, it could be that he’s so hamstrung, he can’t do his job. I’m not sure,” Shakman told us.

Here’s the context of Shakman’s comments:

Shakman filed court papers in April asking a judge to install a “monitor” to watch over state government hiring, firing and promotions – which he’s successfully done in Chicago and some Cook County offices in the past. His latest move comes after a series of Better Government Association reports uncovered widespread patronage hiring issues at the Illinois Department of Transportation under Gov. Pat Quinn and his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich.

The Office of the Executive Inspector General, or OEIG, which Meza heads, is charged with enforcing a ban on most political hiring, firing and promotions in state government. The ban was put in place after a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, known as “Rutan.”

Meza was in U.S. District Court Tuesday for a hearing on Shakman’s case, but declined to answer questions from the BGA after the hearing.

Last week, Meza wrote a letter to the Illinois attorney general’s office, asking lawyers there to represent him in filing an “amicus curiae,” or friend of the court motion, in the case.

The letter said Meza’s office has “useful information” for the court, but did not say what. Meza’s lawyer reiterated that, without going as far as to say there’s an ongoing investigation.

“We believe the Office of the Executive Inspector General is uniquely in position here to provide help to the court,” Assistant Attorney General Neil MacDonald told Magistrate Judge Sidney I. Schenkier. “We’re making ourselves available on an ongoing basis.”

By law, the OEIG can’t admit the existence of an investigation, but several sources have told the BGA they’ve been interviewed by Meza’s staff about illegal hiring and patronage issues at IDOT. Sources say that investigation has been going on for more than two years, but there’s been no public announcement of findings or discipline.

Shakman wants Meza to share what he knows, and we gather from Meza’s letter and the court hearing that Meza is indeed willing to share.

“While the letter doesn’t squarely say they have an investigation underway, the language all but says that,” Shakman told the judge.

But Shakman also indicated to us that while Meza might be helpful to the court case, if Meza’s office had done more up front to root out politics in state government, the Shakman court case wouldn’t even be necessary.

Meza responded to a question about such criticism with, in part, the following:

I know you are aware of the limitations I am required to abide by as they relate to the confidentiality of our investigations and the fact that we are prohibited from commenting on investigations, even ongoing or completed investigations until after the Executive Ethics Commission has completed its legal process and has decided to either release a report, because it is a mandatory report, or not release a report, because under the Ethics Act it is discretionary on their part to release or not release.

If you have further questions regarding our agency’s position regarding this particular issue, please direct them to our counsel in this matter at the Office of Attorney General, Mr. Neil MacDonald whom I have copied on this email. I have also copied Mr. Shakman and counsel for the Office of the Governor in this matter.

Meantime, while Shakman’s initial request was for a monitor for all of state government, he said he’s focusing his request on just IDOT, for now.

“That’s where our strongest evidence exists,” Shakman said.

The case is back in court Oct. 22 – just a couple weeks before the gubernatorial election – and a decision from the judge could happen at that time.

For other BGA articles on this subject, visit the following links:

Clout Hiring Persists Under Quinn

IDOT Boss Refuses To Talk About Clout Hiring

Quinn Clout Hiring Faces Court Scrutiny

IDOT Secretary Talks About BGA’s Clout Hiring Investigation

Hitting The Road

IDOT Secretary Resigns After BGA Investigations

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