Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough | Youtube screenshot
Just months since she took office, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough could face a new federal crackdown on her hiring decisions, after a new brief filed in federal court by a decades-long monitor of government employment and hiring practices accused Yarbrough of illegally filling her office with politically-connected workers, soliciting campaign donations from workers on their personal cell phones and forcing out those who won’t join her team.
On Sept. 6, Chicago lawyer Michael Shakman, who for decades has used the federal courts to combat patronage hiring in Chicago, Cook County and the state of Illinois, filed a motion in Chicago federal court asking a judge to intervene in the Cook County Clerk’s office and put a stop to the hiring and employment practices he says violate the law and two separate court decrees, dating as far back as 1972.
“… The Clerk maintains and operates an illegal patronage employment system that violates the County Clerk Decrees,” Shakman wrote in the motion. “The Clerk’s misdeeds arise from a pervasive disregard of the County Clerk Decrees by the Clerk and others operating under the Clerk’s jurisdiction.”
Michael Shakman | Miller Shakman Levine & Feldman
The decrees are known collectively as the Shakman decrees, in reference to Shakman, who was the original plaintiff in the 1969 lawsuit against the Democratic Organization of Cook County and others that led to the federal court coming to oversee hiring and employment practices across a wide swath of government offices and agencies.
The litigation, which is still ongoing, resulted in a primary 1972 decree prohibiting state agencies from making most hires based on political considerations. The court’s authority over government hiring practices has been broadened over the ensuing decades through other so-called consent decrees.
The court enforces its oversight through a Special Master, compliance administrators and hiring monitors placed in each office under the court’s purview through the Shakman decrees.
The court’s oversight can be eased or even ended. Last year, for instance, the court ended Shakman oversight of several Cook county offices, including the county board and the Cook County Health and Hospital Systems.
However, according to Shakman’s newest filing, in the County Clerk’s office, Yarbrough has allegedly chosen to simply ignore many of the dictates of the decrees governing hiring since she was elected in November 2018. Yarbrough had occupied the Cook County Recorder of Deed’s office before running for County Clerk. She replaced David Orr, who opted not to seek reelection.
Yarbrough, who, as clerk supervises elections in suburban Cook County, also holds the position of “Sergeant-at-Arms” on the board of the Cook County Democratic Party and serves as a Democratic committeeman in Proviso Township. Others holding similar positions in the Cook County party include some of the state’s most powerful Democrats, including House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, indicted Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, State Sen. Robert Martwick and former State Rep. Lou Lang, among others.
Shakman alleged Yarbrough has used employment records from the Clerk’s office to send text messages to office employees on their personal mobile phones to solicit campaign donations.
Further, Shakman’s filing detailed several instances in which he alleges Yarbrough hired friends and longtime political allies. These include:
Hiring former Maywood Police Chief Tim Curry as Deputy Clerk of Security. Curry had served as police chief for Yarbrough’s husband, Henderson Yarbrough, when he served as Maywood’s mayor. Curry also had worked for Yarbrough as security chief at the Recorder’s office;
Hiring former Democratic State Rep. Cynthia Soto as Clerk of the Board and Procurement Director; and
Hiring Holly Figliuolo, a relative of State Sen. Martwick, as an executive assistant.
According to Shakman, Yarbrough made these hires and others, despite those positions being subject oversight under the decrees.
Shakman also alleged Yarbrough and her allies in the clerk’s office have also taken actions intended to force out existing employees who weren’t among her supporters and friends. These actions, Shakman said, included establishing a “rotation” for six supervisors in the Bureau of Vital Records, forcing them to “’rotate’ every 90 days to a different office location … at each of the Clerk’s suburban offices located in Bridgeview, Markham, Maywood, Rolling Meadows and Skokie.”
While Yarbrough asserted the new rotation policy was needed to “promote uniformity across all offices” and help the supervisors “learn how things are done in the other offices,” Shakman said that justification was “dubious” and “difficult to square with the facts.”
He noted three other Vital Records supervisors were not forced into the rotation. Those include a supervisor who is retiring, and two others who “are politically connected.” These include “a former Chicago alderman” and another who is “connected” to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
“There is no legitimate business purpose for the Clerk’s rotation policy,” Shakman wrote. “Based on the selective implementation of this new policy, it is apparent that the Clerk’s actual motivation is to make life so unbearable for the Aggrieved Supervisors that they have little choice but to resign.
“After sweeping out the supervisors in place under the prior regime, the Clerk will then be free to offer these positions to her political allies.”
Shakman said Yarbrough and her staff rejected his attempts to resolve the dispute over the hiring practices without court intervention. Following a meeting with Yarbrough this summer, Shakman said he filed the motion to ask the court to force Yarbrough to abide by the terms of the court decrees.
“The law is well-settled that a party to a consent decree cannot ignore the terms of the court order or make unilateral changes,” Shakman wrote.
On Sept. 11, U.S. District Judge Sidney Schenkier gave Yarbrough until Oct. 11 to respond to Shakman’s motion.