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Brown: Plenty of transparency in reformer Quinn’s CTA appointment of Zuccarelli

Updated: September 9, 2013 3:04PM

Three weeks before all hell broke loose at Metra over the mess surrounding the departure of CEO Alex Clifford, Gov. Pat Quinn decided to appoint a veteran political hack to the board of the Chicago Transit Authority.

The governor’s motives for selecting Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli for the post were transparent from the start.

Zuccarelli’s primary qualification was that he also serves as the Democratic committeeman for Thornton Township, the single largest repository of Democratic primary voters in Cook County.

The governor’s office listed a bunch of different reasons for Zuccarelli’s selection, but it’s all blah-blah-blah.

By placing Zuccarelli in a position that has long been regarded as a political plum, Quinn guaranteed himself the allegiance of one of the best-functioning Democratic organizations in the suburbs.

Yet the appointment barely caused a ripple of dissent under the rules of political engagement in effect just two months ago. It was all shrugged off quickly as business as usual.

As they say: That was then. This is now.

In the new hyper-sensitive post-Metra landscape, Quinn’s choice of Zuccarelli sticks out like a reformer at a Cook County Democratic slatemaking session.

Making matters worse for the governor is a report earlier this week from Crain’s Chicago Business reporter Greg Hinz on how the Zuccarelli appointment skirts a state law that otherwise prohibits government officials or employees from serving on the CTA board.

This is the same general provision that ensnared former Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran, who got in trouble for also being paid as an Orland Park trustee.

As Hinz explained, the prohibition applies to federal, state, county or municipal government, but makes no mention of townships, proving that even Illinois lawmakers can’t keep track of all our layers of government. The governor ‘s people say Zuccarelli is in the clear because a township supervisor is not regarded as a municipal official under state law. I don’t doubt it — although RTA Chairman John Gates was also troubled by Zuccarelli’s “dual roles” and urged the governor to withdraw the nomination.

And the old Pat Quinn, the one who made a reputation for himself as a reformer, would have called for closing the loophole instead of exploiting it for his personal political advantage.

As a member of the CTA board, Zuccarelli is now entitled to a $25,000 annual salary. It used to be an even better gig with health benefits and a pension, but those perks have been eliminated for new board members.

That should still nicely supplement Zuccarelli’s pay as township supervisor, which Crain’s reported as $128,520 annually, although the township website discloses his total compensation including benefits as $186,418.

What’s even more striking is that this is part of a long-running pattern of double-dipping for Zuccarelli, who is never content to draw just one government paycheck at a time.

He first drew attention when he went on the Cook County Recorder of Deeds payroll in 2004 at $82,000 as the supervisor of satellite offices, which was probably a handy assignment for a guy not wanting to be pinned down at any one place.

When that ran out in 2009, a spot was found for Zuccarelli on the Cook County Employee Appeal Board at $38,000. But county officials eliminated the salary for board members, and Zuccarelli had to shop for another source of money.

During all this time, Zuccarelli also has served as chairman of the board of South Suburban College, which does not pay anything but gives him control over more jobs and contracts, which equates to more power for the committeeman.

As you can see, he’s a very busy guy, which is why I was not surprised when I drove down to South Holland unannounced Tuesday that he was busy in meetings outside the office all day and wouldn’t have time to talk, but seeing as how he’s never returned my phone calls, I had to try.

Pat Quinn, the reformer, made his reputation calling out double-dippers like Zuccarelli at Sunday morning press conferences attended by young reporters who got old but don’t forget.

Instead, Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson defended the appointment Wednesday on the basis that the governor has known Zuccarelli for many years through their mutual work with veterans and the community college. Anderson said it was important for south suburban residents to have a strong voice on the CTA board.

Just not nearly so important as for Quinn to have a strong supporter in Thornton Township.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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