Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough wants to end the work of a federal monitor appointed to root out patronage hiring in the office. (Credit: Clerk's Instagram page)
Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough wants to end the work of a federal monitor appointed to root out patronage hiring in the office. (Credit: Clerk's Instagram page)

The 53-year-old legal battle designed to drag Chicago governments out of their legacy of patronage hiring could finally come to an end this month. But that won’t mean the problem is fixed, according to the veteran watchdog at the head of the campaign.

Since it was first brought by attorney and onetime political candidate Michael Shakman in 1969, the lawsuit Shakman v. Cook County Democratic Organization has spurred wave after wave of federal interventions designed to prevent public officials at the city, county and state level from doling out government jobs as rewards to political allies. Shakman, now 80, still oversees the litigation.

Following a flurry of agreements and court actions, just one agency — Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough’s office — remains under the watch of a federal monitor stemming from the Shakman lawsuit. Now, Yarbrough is asking the federal judge overseeing the case to free it from the oversight, calling it costly and unnecessary. But Shakman’s legal team says the clerk’s office is nowhere near ready, citing findings by an independent monitor of a haphazard human resources operation and multiple suspect hires.

Shakman agreed to lift the monitors overseeing Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office in October and Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez’s office in November. A similar monitor over Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office was dissolved by court order earlier this year. But the attorney representing Shakman says there’s a reason why Yarbrough’s office is the lone holdout.

“Since the compliance administrator has been appointed, her reports have consistently shown that the clerk’s office is not complying with its own internal employment policies,” said Brian Hays, an attorney representing Shakman. They include failure to publish job postings, hiring unqualified candidates and bypassing vetting requirements for non-political hires — all of which can open the door to clout-based hiring and erode public confidence, Hays said.

“These are policies that are specifically targeted to remedy prior Shakman violations,” he said.

Less than a year after Yarbrough was elected clerk in 2018, Shakman asked a judge to put her office under court oversight, citing an employee reassignment program he alleged was designed to pressure employees without political connections to quit. By then, Yarbrough had already tussled with a federal hiring monitor during her six-year tenure as Cook County recorder of deeds, an office she was accused of using to prop up friends, family and political allies.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough (Credit: Cook County government website)

Yarbrough and her legal team have consistently dismissed the federal monitor as a baseless nuisance arising from a personal grudge Shakman carries for her — which Shakman denies.

The legal feud culminated in June with a motion filed by Yarbrough’s office asking U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang to dissolve the oversight and stop holding the office to the so-called “Shakman decrees.”.

“The violations originally identified by the court have long since been remedied,” attorneys for the clerk’s office wrote in their motion. “The objectives of the consent decrees and the appointment order have been met. Additionally, there are durable remedies in place to protect against unlawful political discrimination in the future.”

Yarbrough’s argument got a boost in August, when a federal appeals court granted a similar motion from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office that asked for state agencies to be freed from the oversight.

The 7th Circuit’s decision “signals the era of the Shakman decrees has come to an end,” Yarbrough’s attorneys wrote in an Aug. 12 supplemental court filing. “The clerk, like the governor, has implemented a durable remedy.”

But attorney Cardelle Spangler, the court-appointed monitor assigned to oversee hiring practices in the clerk’s office, hit back in an Aug. 19 filing that found “factual inaccuracies” and “context missing” from Yarbrough’s claim that her office had stood up a complete bulwark against clout-based hiring.

Spangler noted that Yarbrough never disputed a finding that a candidate for a high-ranking human resources role in her office falsified parts of her résumé and then “provided false statements” when questioned by the monitor. 

Still, the woman was hired, never reprimanded and remains in the role, according to court records.

The report noted another job candidate “falsified her application” by lying about her education history and was nevertheless hired over a field of more qualified candidates. When the monitor flagged the improper hire, the employee resigned and “immediately” found a job at a different county agency, a turnaround Spangler called “curious.”

Unlike Pritzker’s office, which Shakman acknowledged had made progress on reforms before the appeals court vacated the oversight, Yarbrough has refused to cooperate, Spangler wrote. The monitor spelled out a three-page timeline of instances in which the clerk’s office had either ignored or rejected court orders.

“In contrast with the governor, the clerk has not approached her obligations under the consent decrees and appointment order by supporting ‘remedial measures to minimize the risk of political patronage in employment practices,’” Spangler wrote in the August filing. “Nor has she worked cooperatively with the [monitor] or plaintiffs since the [monitor]’s April 2020 appointment.”

In a statement on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Yarbrough doubled down on the clerk’s case for shaking off the monitor, in part by pointing to her agency’s absorption of the recorder of deeds office at the end of 2020.

“Over the past three years the clerk’s office has hired more than 100 qualified candidates that were approved by the compliance administrator, as well as tackled the extraordinary task of assuming all the duties of the former recorder of deeds office with no evidence of unlawful political discrimination,” spokeswoman Sally Daly said.

Spangler declined to comment.

Hays, Shakman’s attorney, acknowledged that the monitor hasn’t found clear instances of politically motivated hiring. But he argued lapses in human resources policy that allow unqualified hires can be almost as harmful.

“Having a job description that has minimum qualifications is important because historically, people who were unqualified would get jobs that could end up being ghost payroll positions,” Hays said. “Minimum qualifications are how you make sure people are being hired on the merits and not based on their political connections.

“Our position is that those are not minutiae — those are important protections that are there to…prevent us from going back to the day when people were hired because of their political work,” he said.

Yarbrough has considerable influence in the Cook County Democratic Party as committeeperson of west suburban Proviso Township, which consistently posts high election turnouts.

In November, she was reelected to a second full term overseeing the clerk’s office, which administers suburban elections, maintains property records and calculates tax rates. She faced no Democratic opponents.

Chang may rule on Yarbrough’s motion as soon as this month.

Alex Nitkin is a solutions reporter conducting investigations on efforts to fix broken systems in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois government. Before joining Illinois Answers, he worked as a reporter and editor for The Daily Line covering Cook County and Chicago government. He previously worked at The Real Deal Chicago, where he covered local real estate news, and DNAinfo Chicago, where he worked as a breaking news reporter and then as a neighborhood reporter covering the city's Northwest Side. A New York City native who grew up in Connecticut, Alex graduated Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a bachelor’s degree.