SPRINGFIELD — — Dozens of state jobs involved in a dispute over whether they should be free of politics were filled by Gov. Pat Quinn's administration with candidates who were politically connected or gave campaign money to the governor's party, an Associated Press review of state documents shows.
In a review of government emails provided by Quinn's office, the AP found that more than half of 45 hires at the Department of Transportation had connections. For instance, four held jobs in Quinn's office or worked for another Democrat before moving to IDOT; nine are relatives of officeholders, party officials, union representatives or others who are politically connected; seven are politically active, either as officeholders or party officials; three have donated to campaign committees; and two have served on campaign payrolls, including for legislators.
They were hired for posts in a process closed to the public, and it's not clear whether they all adhered to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lays out strict rules against improperly giving taxpayer-funded jobs to people based on political connections. The Quinn administration says the jobs should be exempt from the ruling because they are sensitive policy-making positions, but one of the jobs was pre-screening the hire of highway maintenance workers.
The AP review is the first to publicly reveal the identities and connections of some of the people hired by IDOT under Quinn as part of a hiring process that is being challenged in federal court and has drawn scrutiny from the state inspector general and lawmakers. The program also has become an issue in Quinn's campaign for re-election, as Republican rival Bruce Rauner attempts to undermine the governor's assertion that he has cleaned up Illinois government after two predecessors were sentenced to prison.
Michael Shakman, a Chicago attorney and anti-patronage activist who asked a federal judge last month to order an investigation into hiring under Quinn, said the AP's findings were not surprising given the state's history.
"This is consistent with what we thought was going on," Shakman said. "It's why we need to get an independent monitor to sort through some of this."
Quinn repeatedly says he has "zero tolerance" for any wrongdoing and has cracked down on hiring procedures since taking over in 2009 for now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — a position reiterated by his spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, when presented with the AP findings.
IDOT Spokesman Guy Tridgell said the department follows the rules. He said the agency was allowed to make the hires under an exemption from state rules that's reserved for policy makers or other members of a governor's inner circle.
"The credentials of prospective employees are reviewed and if they are a good fit and can provide good service to the agency, they are considered for employment," Tridgell said in an emailed statement.
At issue is whether the jobs were properly publicized to allow anyone to apply, regardless of whether the successful candidate was competent. The Better Government Association reported last summer that as many as 200 jobs categorized as "staff assistants" were improperly filled under both Blagojevich and Quinn based on "clout instead of competence."
IDOT says state officials reviewed the roster of remaining staff assistants and found that 48 of 60 indeed should have been protected by the Supreme Court's Rutan ruling, meaning their jobs should not have been given to employees based on connections or loyalty. But state officials say it could cost millions of dollars in court expenses if they tried to reopen hiring for those posts.
Quinn's office has not detailed which of those 60 jobs were reclassified, but provided the AP with 137 pages of emails between IDOT supervisors and the governor's office addressing both staff assistants and other positions. Listed were about 45 people hired mostly in 2011 and deemed exempt from Rutan rules by the administration. As part of its reporting, the AP attempted to contact each person, but among roughly two dozen reached, all either did not return phone messages, declined to comment or referred AP to IDOT.
Among the 45 hires was Kathleen Vehovic, the daughter of former Sangamon County Democratic party chairman Todd Renfrow.
Vehovic was hired to a $39,000-a-year post after serving repeatedly filling emergency positions. One email said Vehovic "performed exceptionally" and was "critical" to bureau operations because she coordinates pre-employment screening for snow removal and highway maintenance workers.
Shakman said the job "obviously" should not have been exempt from state hiring rules. Vehovic did not respond to requests for comment left by phone and during a visit to her home.