Those of us who’ve spent our professional lives reporting on the patronage abuses of local Democratic machine bosses, and covering attorney Michael Shakman’s long legal battle to curb them, tend to forget the problem is not unique to Chicago and Cook County.
Republicans politicize hiring, firing and promotion decisions with the same ruthless efficiency in their suburban and Downstate fiefdoms, and in Springfield the perpetrators mostly come from the party that controls the governor’s office.
Last year the Better Government Association revealed that clout hiring has been rampant under Gov. Pat Quinn’s watch at the Illinois Department of Transportation, despite court-ordered prohibitions.
Our investigation revealed that hundreds of IDOT employees have been hired in recent years, in apparent violation of a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing most politically motivated personnel moves by state officials.
That ruling settled a lawsuit alleging illegal patronage in a Republican administration, but Michael Shakman could care less about the offenders’ political pedigree—the high court’s mandate simply provided him with a legal basis for challenging the questionable IDOT hiring we reported on.
Shakman’s new anti-patronage target is state government, and last month he filed court papers requesting enforcement of the 1990 decision.
Shakman wants the court to remove most of the questionable IDOT hires from their jobs, and appoint a “monitor” to keep an eye on potential patronage abuse in the future.
Monitors are a good idea — they’ve been effective in policing patronage violations in Chicago and Cook County — and it’s time to impose the same oversight authority on Springfield, whether the governor is Pat Quinn or Republican Bruce Rauner.
But one nagging question still remains: Who should have been keeping an eye on patronage abuse in state government up to now?
One obvious answer is Ricardo Meza, the executive branch inspector general, but he’s hamstrung by rules that limit his power and mandate excessive confidentiality.
The situation is so bad we rarely know what he’s investigating and whether his probes result in any disciplinary action.
Why? Because the Illinois Ethics Act has no teeth.
Meza’s office has supported bills to reform the process, but they’re routinely ignored by the state legislature, and he hasn’t complained very loudly.
As for the widespread abuse we uncovered in our IDOT investigation, Quinn ordered agency director Ann Schneider to “audit” IDOT’s hiring policies.
She found many positions that should have been subject to anti-patronage rules, but were not, and says she’s “embarrassed” by our findings.
“Moving forward,” an IDOT spokesman writes in an email, “these reclassified positions will be hired through the [court-ordered] process.”
Fine, but it never should have gotten to this point. So we’re hoping Shakman’s legal challenge prompts better compliance in the future.
And we’re waiting for IG Meza and reform-minded lawmakers to stand up and fight for tougher ethics laws that mandate more transparency and accountability.
Because taxpayers deserve better, and so do people looking for public-sector employment opportunities, whether it’s in Chicago and Cook County, where patronage abuse has been a way of life, or in Springfield, where it’s flown under the radar screen but still been scandalous.
At the end of the day, state government needs a level personnel playing field — one as flat as our iconic Illinois prairie.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.