More than two years into an investigation of hiring
practices at the Illinois Department of Transportation, a federal judge has
expanded the power of the review panel to cover all other state agencies under the oversight of Illinois' governor.
In a memorandum opinion and order issued Nov. 28, Federal Magistrate
Judge Sidney I. Schenkier granted a motion asking to expand the investigative ability of the “Special Master” tasked with investigating IDOT patronage hiring.
The listed plaintiff is Michael L. Shakman, who was the
original plaintiff in the 1969 lawsuit Shakman
et al. v. Democratic Organization of Cook County, et al. That litigation,
which is classified as still ongoing, resulted in a 1972 decree prohibiting
state agencies from making most hires based on political considerations. The actual
Special Master now is Noelle C. Brennan. Schenkier appointed her in October 2014,
following the publication of a report from the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General, who had since 2011, under the administration of former Gov. Pat Quinn, investigated allegations of suspect IDOT hiring practices.
The OEIG report had confirmed instances in which IDOT had misused a special exemption created for so-called "staff assistants," allowing them to be political hires, even though their duties matched those of jobs that should have been covered by the 1972 decree.
In filing for expanded power, plaintiffs asked the court to allow the Special Master to review hiring at all “the agencies, boards, commissions or other
instrumentalities” under the jurisdiction of current Gov. Bruce Rauner, in search of similar hiring practices. The scope of the Special Master's review would exclude agencies that fall under the offices of the Attorney General, Secretary of State, Comptroller and state elections board.
According to Schenkier’s opinion, the
Special Master’s work for two years focused on “identifying positions
improperly designated as exempt” from the rule prohibiting hiring based on
political connections. The effort also entailed drafting a comprehensive list
of the jobs that should be exempt and compiling recommendations for preventing
“The Special Master’s investigation persuades us that the
careful review of exempt positions she is overseeing at IDOT should take place
at the other agencies under the governor as well,” Schenkier wrote. “The
structural and procedural weaknesses that led to the ability to manipulate
exempt positions at IDOT are not unique to IDOT; indeed, the Special Master’s work
has revealed that part of the problem at IDOT resulted from a lack of effective
oversight policies at the Department of Central Management Services, which has
authority to approve job designations statewide.”
In responding to the motion for expanded powers, Rauner did
not suggest a broader review is unwarranted. He did, however, argue it is
unnecessary or premature for the Special Master to get involved with other
agencies before they have a chance to conduct their own reviews. He pointed to
the Office of the Executive Inspector General and its new Hiring and Employment
Monitoring unit, which started reviewing similar areas in May. Rauner also
argued expanding the Special Master’s role would “unduly burden the already
overextended financial resources of the state.”
While Schenkier noted sympathy for the state’s financial
straits, he said those difficulties can’t “dissuade the court from imposing the
requirements it deems necessary to ensure the agencies are complying with the
decree.” Further, he said involving the Special Master now is likely to be more
efficient and less expensive over time. As evidence, he cited the nine years
prior spent overseeing a similar, yet “far more complex process” at Chicago
Schenkier applauded the creation of the HEM unit and said
having it work under the Special Master would be mutually beneficial. The order
directs the Special Master to meet with the HEM unit and agency officials to
coordinate processes and review timelines. He set a Dec. 19 deadline for
submittal of a proposed order reflecting his opinion, and wants the planning meetings
to be complete within 90 days of that filing.