On Jan. 6, less than a week before Republican Bruce Rauner was sworn in as governor, the chief of staff for Democratic state Senate President John Cullerton sent an email to Nancy Kimme, a top official at the Illinois comptroller’s office and a key member of Rauner’s transition team.
The email from Dave Gross asked Kimme to help save the jobs of two state-government bureaucrats who, with the change in administration, were slated to be fired and replaced with Rauner people.
Kimme presumably passed the request on to Rauner aides, though it’s unclear what happened from there. One of the workers left state government later that month, the other in February, records show.
Either way, the email exchange – confirmed by the Better Government Association through interviews and recently obtained records – illustrates the intense political jockeying going on behind the scenes after Rauner won the election against incumbent Pat Quinn.
But even more so it raises questions about the Rauner administration’s commitment to government transparency.
The comptroller refused to provide copies of emails between Kimme, transition team members and others. But the BGA sued the agency, and ended up obtaining at least some of the emails through a related subpoena to Kimme.
And when the messages were finally turned over it was revealed that Kimme had used her private Yahoo account to communicate with Gross and other political players about taxpayer-funded state jobs, not her official government email account.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Rauner’s education chief Beth Purvis are among the public figures recently accused of using private email for government business to potentially avoid public disclosure requirements that apply to government accounts. But Kimme, now a lobbyist, says in an interview that’s not what happened here.
“It wasn’t an effort to get around anything,” Kimme says, adding people routinely contacted her via private email because that’s what she used most often. “My private emails go to my phone that I have with me all the time.”
As for the job requests from political figures, Kimme says, “I got a lot of calls” after Rauner was elected because of her role on his team.
“A lot of people asked for jobs to be spared,” she says. “Sometimes they were and sometimes they weren’t. Whoever wanted to be kept had to re-interview.”
Rauner spokesman Lance Trover had no immediate comment.
The BGA submitted a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request to the comptroller Jan. 29, roughly two weeks after Rauner’s inauguration.
The BGA asked for a list of “protected” state employees, or workers who were not to be terminated by the new administration, as well as copies of emails between Kimme, state lawmakers, and Rauner or members of his transition team that dealt with personnel matters.
State hiring is supposed to be apolitical but exceptions exist for certain positions, such as those involving media relations and policy, and the BGA wanted to know whether Rauner, a wealthy former venture capitalist who vowed to “shake up Springfield” and improve state government, was granting favors to political powerbrokers.
On Feb. 5 the comptroller’s office said no such list existed, and declined to turn over any emails because it claimed state law exempts the communications from public disclosure. At the time, the agency didn’t indicate whether it knew that Kimme, who left state government last February, used private email to conduct public business.
The BGA sued the comptroller Feb. 24, claiming the office “willfully and intentionally violated FOIA by failing to produce the records requested.”
The BGA subpoenaed Kimme as part of the suit, and she recently turned over emails from her private accounts showing state job inquiries, as well as communications about state board appointments and jobs for Rauner campaign staffers.
The comptroller’s office continues to resist turning over such records under FOIA.
The Associated Press recently reported that Kimme and two other administrators were filling political jobs for Rauner while on the comptroller’s office payroll. A Rauner spokesman told the AP that their use of time was appropriate, and didn’t violate ethics laws banning political activity on state time.
Kimme discussed the matter with Michael Drake, the comptroller’s independent inspector general, and he found no fault with her performing transition committee tasks while on state time, according to a Nov. 24 letter he sent Kimme.
Drake declined to comment.
This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9035.
Photos courtesy of the Sun-Times
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