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IDOT twists law on political hires

Every so often we hear about crazy old laws that are still on the books but rarely enforced.

Like: It’s illegal to drive with an un-caged bear, play cards on Sunday, or spit on a sidewalk — stuff like that.

Sadly, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision aimed at limiting patronage hiring in state government has gone the way of those goofy old laws: Still in effect, but ignored and treated with disdain, though it’s hardly goofy or crazy.

The Better Government Association found the Illinois Department of Transportation — a large agency under the governor’s control — has been manipulating the wording in job descriptions to get around restrictions on political hiring.

Since 2003, IDOT’s claimed that hundreds of new hires would be handling “policy” or “spokesperson” responsibilities, when frequently it wasn’t true.

Those key words enabled IDOT to bypass the Rutan decision and hire based on clout instead of competence.

Rutan refers to the aggrieved state employee who won the landmark case against former Gov. Jim Thompson and the Illinois Republican Party in 1990.

The attorney, coincidentally, was Mary Lee Leahy, a BGA board member who died last year.

Rutan was supposed to confine a governor’s political hiring to a small inner circle, with the rest merit-based.

But it hasn’t worked out that way.

The Quinn administration oversees IDOT, but their response to our investigation doesn’t inspire much confidence.

IDOT dragged out initial requests for information and eventually refused to answer any questions.

Quinn’s office was a bit more helpful but wouldn’t make him available for an interview.

Only now, after our story ran in the State Journal-Register, is Quinn talking, and predictably denying any violations of anti-patronage mandates.

Central Management Services, the state agency empowered to enforce Rutan by refereeing patronage requests from other agencies under the governor’s control, made us jump through Freedom of Information Act hoops to get the most basic facts, including: How many employees work at IDOT?

Please.

So we started calling some of the political hires directly, and how’s this for irony: Many have “spokesperson” duties but won’t talk to us about their jobs.

Bill Daley, Quinn’s opponent in the Democratic primary, criticizes the administration’s apparent patronage violations and promises a more accountable and transparent process.

That may ring hollow since his family practically invented patronage, but time will tell.

Meanwhile, the state’s in-house watchdog, Executive Inspector General Ricardo Meza, has been looking at IDOT’s questionable hiring for more than a year — that’s twice as long as the BGA investigation — but he still hasn’t released any findings.

Let’s hope the extra time produces a report with extra scope and impact.

Meza should be all over patronage hiring in state government, like watchdogs are in Chicago and Cook County, where the anti-patronage Shakman decrees include compliance monitors with enforcement tools, including court oversight.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago have even put hiring scammers in jail.

In other words, court orders are only effective if they have teeth, and it’s time for Rutan to become more than a paper tiger.

Springfield, like Chicago, has prosecutors, litigators and watchdogs eager to put the roar back into Rutan, and punish officials who play political games with it.

It’s time for them to bring it on.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga



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