Railing against public corruption in his State of the State address last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker declared that “the old patronage system needs to die, finally and completely.”
But a new report Thursday from a court-appointed watchdog suggests since Pritzker took office in January 2019 his administration has taken steps that have made it more difficult for those charged with monitoring state hiring practices to ensure political considerations aren’t influencing who gets government jobs.
Court monitor Noelle Brennan wrote in a court filing that her communication with the governor’s office and other state agencies, which “had been very productive over the years," “has been diminished by new restrictions placed on the (court monitor’s) ability to communicate freely with agency personnel.”
“We believe these new restrictions imposed by the Governor’s Office are unproductive to the previously cooperative efforts of the parties to eliminate unlawful patronage, reform state employment practices and implement lasting improvements,” Brennan writes in the court filing.
Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said the assertion that there are new restrictions on communication is “false."
“There are no new restrictions, and the state will be responding in court shortly,” Abudayyeh said in a statement.
The administration “is working diligently and persistently to improve employment practices,” she said.
Despite the issues raised in the report, Brennan says “the Parties are making significant progress toward the future goal of substantial compliance” with a 1972 court decree aimed at ending patronage hiring.
Thursday’s court filing is the latest to stem from an inquiry that began in 2014 after a federal judge assigned a lawyer dig into hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation.
The report takes issue with the state agencies’ continued use of “personal services contracts” and temporary hires to skirt the traditional hiring process.
In one instance, a candidate who was interviewed for a job with the Department of Human Services was instead hired in September on a personal services contract after pulling out of the interview process because the job would have required relocating to Springfield.
A different candidate was identified but never got the job, according to the court filing. Instead, “emails in August and September 2019 show the concerted efforts of various DHS employees to hire” the original candidate through a personal services contract without publicly posting it and allowing others to compete.
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It’s not known how widely the contracts are used, but relying on data from the state comptroller, Brennan’s court filing says the state paid 1,700 contractual workers in 2019, many of whom also were paid in 2018, “suggesting that the (personal services contract) or temporary employee process is used for extended periods of time.”
“The overuse of temporary employees is a process ripe for manipulation and can result in unfair advantages for those employees selected for temporary employment outside the usual onboarding process,” Brennan’s filing says.
Although not mentioned in the court filing, one example of an employee hired on contract is Forrest Ashby, a former longtime state worker and Pritzker campaign consultant whose name surfaced in a controversial email first reported by WBEZ.
Former Commonwealth Edison lobbyist Mike McClain, a close confidant of House Speaker Michael Madigan, wrote to officials in then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration in July 2012 seeking leniency for Ashby in a disciplinary matter because he “kept his mouth shut” about “ghost workers, the rape in Champaign and other items."
State records show Ashby was being paid $40 per hour for consulting work for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board “for corrections curriculum and development updates.” He was paid $14,460 beginning in October, plus $133.96 in travel reimbursements. His contract was suspended last month pending an investigation after the email became public.
The 2014 court order came after the state’s then-executive inspector general, Richard Meza, found improper hiring that began under Gov. Rod Blagojevich but picked up under Quinn, his successor in the governor’s office.
Meza said his investigation was “unable to conclude” that top officials knew of the illegal hiring. Chicago attorney Michael Shakman, who has fought patronage for decades, then pushed for court oversight.
One of the major issues in the initial court monitor’s investigation was hundreds of people who were hired into “staff assistant” positions after administration officials bypassed personnel rules aimed at preventing politics from influencing hiring. A 2017 report from Brennan found that Quinn’s office “played a key role in the staff assistant abuse at IDOT."