SPRINGFIELD, Ill. | When questions arose about political hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation, Gov. Pat Quinn's administration evaluated several jobs that already had been filled to ensure they were among the few positions where an applicant's political loyalty and connections could be considered.
But a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling over government hiring in Illinois requires that question be answered before a job offer is even extended.
Michael Shakman, who spearheaded a landmark 1972 decree against political hiring, sued the Democratic governor this week in federal court. He is asking for a monitor to investigate employment at the Transportation Department after a report last year by the Better Government Association that for nearly 10 years, IDOT evaded both his Shakman Decree and the high court ruling known as Rutan in hiring people based on politics and later transferring them into positions protected from easy dismissal.
The claims — and the Quinn administration's response to it — are raising questions about how closely the current administration has followed those rules.
Quinn has said he has no tolerance for breaking the rules and that he ordered an audit of the jobs after learning of the discrepancies.
The BGA report found as many as 200 IDOT "staff assistant" positions filled in violation of Rutan under Quinn and his predecessor, Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
After Shakman's motion was filed in federal court on Tuesday, IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said the 61 jobs currently labeled as staff assistants were submitted for evaluation to the state's personnel agency, the Department of Central Management Services, to determine whether they should be covered by Rutan. The agency responded that 50 of them should be, and they will be treated as such in the future. There's no indication anyone hired will lose his job.
After-the-fact appraisal is not how Rutan is supposed to work, said Carl Draper, a Springfield lawyer who has been involved in several high-profile government hiring cases, including one in which 16 IDOT employees, fired by Blagojevich for political reasons, won back their jobs.
"The Rutan settlement required all Rutan exemptions be kept on a list and publicly available — in other words, determined in advance based on the position duties only," Draper said. "That was supposed to be constantly available to the public so you knew whether you were applying for a job that would or would not have protections against political considerations."
Tridgell did not initially respond to questions about whether the jobs were pre-screened by CMS for Rutan qualification. When asked again, he said late Thursday the jobs had been "submitted at the time they were created and found by CMS to be Rutan-exempt" — but last year's Quinn-ordered audit revealed that job duties needed "clarification."
Quinn took over in 2009 from Blagojevich, who was impeached. Blagojevich and Gov. George Ryan before him were sentenced to federal prison for corruption.
As part of his reform agenda, Quinn promised transparency. But Shakman also seeks disclosure by Quinn's office of 47 documents he believes discuss the politically based reassignments, but which Quinn's office refused to turn over. The Republican candidate in November's election for governor, Bruce Rauner, has called on Quinn to release the documents.
In his court motion, Shakman indicated that he did get a list of Rutan-exempt positions from CMS, but he said he didn't know whether the jobs went through the required screening process.
"I really don't know what internal procedures they are applying," Shakman said. "One of the problems in this area is, we don't know."
Rutan exemptions are supposed to be reserved for high-level, policymaking positions — the idea being that a governor should be able to choose, without strings, his or her closest advisers. The IDOT hires, Shakman maintains, are low-level staff assistant or executive secretary positions that IDOT, not CMS, labeled as Rutan-exempt.
The 47 documents were identified as relevant to Shakman's request under the Freedom of Information Act for correspondence between Quinn's deputy chief of staff and IDOT's personnel director. Quinn's FOIA officer denied disclosure based on an exemption for documents that are preliminary or in which opinions are expressed.
Rauner has made it a campaign issue.
"He's claimed that he'll bring transparency and now he's blocking the public from learning the truth," Rauner told The Associated Press on Thursday. "Pat Quinn is a player in the system of corruption, cronyism."
Quinn's representatives did not answer when asked why he won't release the documents. Instead, campaign spokeswoman Izabela Miltko said the governor has put in place "numerous safeguards to clean up state government and promote openness" and said Rauner should release more detailed tax return documentation than he has.
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.