Cook County Record

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Federal judge expands power of 'Special Master' to review state agency political hiring practices

By Scott Holland | Dec 1, 2016

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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.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner

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 future violations. 

“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 City Hall. 

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.

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Organizations in this Story

State of IllinoisIllinois Department of TransportationIllinois Department of Central Management ServicesIllinois Governor Bruce RaunerU.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois