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Watchdog cites hiring loophole in Cook County
Exemption could be abused to circumvent rules, court is told

Thursday, January 04, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County officials may be exploiting an exemption to get around rules that ban political influence in government hiring, a court-appointed watchdog said Wednesday.

The question was raised in the first report by a former judge appointed to review the county's practices following the disclosure last fall of a federal criminal investigation of hiring at many county agencies.
The report to U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen did not cite any widespread violations of the federal court decree against political hiring, but it said the system was vulnerable to abuse.

Retired Circuit Judge Julia Nowicki said in her report that one county agency was hiring workers into jobs exempt from the political hiring ban and later moving them into positions that are supposed to be free of political influence.

"This practice allows the county to hire and rehire using the same exempt position," wrote Nowicki, who did not name the office or say how often the practice occurred.

Nowicki used the example to show the possibility of abuse in the 500 political positions under the control of the County Board president. Nowicki declined to elaborate on the report, saying she wanted to give the county time to read it.

A spokesman for new County Board President Todd Stroger said the administration is following hiring rules and would investigate the situation cited by Nowicki.

Like the city of Chicago, the county is under long-standing civil consent decrees that bar it from hiring and firing most of its employees based on politics. The Shakman decree, named after lawyer Michael Shakman, who brought the lawsuits years ago, allows exemptions for high-level or policy-making jobs.

"This administration is unaware of the incident cited on page 12 of the report; however, it should be noted that there's nothing concrete throughout the report to indicate that there have been Shakman violations," Stroger spokesman Steve Mayberry said. "The bottom line is the administration is working closely with the compliance administrator to develop a new hiring plan."

Shakman said that the practice of repeatedly using one exempt position to hire workers and then move them into positions that are supposed to be free from politics would be a violation of the court order.

The county probe comes as the federal government continues its investigation into the city, which resulted in the conviction last summer of Mayor Richard Daley's patronage chief. After hiring fraud charges were filed against city officials in July 2005, Andersen appointed a monitor over city hiring. The monitor reported widespread and long-standing abuses of the Shakman decree in the city.

While Nowicki's report does not come to similar conclusions, Shakman predicted that she intended to obtain the same oversight of county hiring and firing that the city monitor has.

"And she should," Shakman said. "The system has been corrupted, there's no doubt about that."

Stroger, who was elected in November following the stroke that ended his father's long tenure as board president, has pledged to cooperate with Nowicki. In her report she commended the new board president for his "personal cooperation and attention."

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