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Never-ending: Shakman, Zuccarelli and clout

Thursday, June 14, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Kristen McQueary

In the legendary saga of Chicago and Cook County patronage hiring, Michael Shakman and his law firm continue to serve as watchdogs.
It seems there is plenty of compost to feed the beast.
The latest public official whose hiring and pink-slip practices have come under suspicion is Cook County Recorder of Deeds Eugene Moore. The law firm Miller Shakman & Beem filed a petition last month -- essentially an extension of the original Shakman case -- questioning whether Moore and his top lieutenants used political activism as a factor in deciding payroll cuts. At least 11 mid-level, non-union supervisors lost their jobs in March.
The petition seeks to find Moore and Deputy Recorder Darlena Williams-Burnett in civil contempt for "repeated and systematic violations" of judgments addressing the recorder's office hiring practices.
Shakman's firm has filed such petitions periodically to keep elected officials in compliance with the Shakman decree, which made illegal century-old hiring practices and a system of rewarding employees for political work.
As recently as June 1, a federal judge formalized a settlement addressing Chicago's hiring system. Signed by Mayor Richard Daley, the settlement creates a $12 million fund to compensate victims of unfair hiring practices.
Now Shakman is targeting Moore, who also serves as Proviso Township Democratic committeeman. In a handful of depositions, several employees claim political considerations weighed into Moore's decision to lay them off. Among their claims:
  Despite a hiring freeze, Moore consistently hired union-level employees, many of whom were "sponsored" by Moore or his chief deputy, Williams-Burnett.
  For summer jobs traditionally reserved for students, Moore and Williams-Burnett hired "middle-aged political workers" instead.
  Employees were routinely promised comp time in exchange for walking in parades and other political events.
  Longtime employees with minimal clout were let go and, in some cases, replaced by inexperienced appointees from Moore's organization or through a sponsor, such as House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).
Keep in mind the depositions are "he said, she said" allegations from disgruntled workers who lost their jobs.
But the recorder's office has long-served as the reputed flophouse for ghost payrollers. They pile up there.
Laid-off employee Jan Sudak, a supervisor in Moore's office who lost her job, named Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli as an example of a political heavyweight whose position was spared -- even though his duties are light and generally handled by someone else. Zuccarelli oversees Moore's satellite offices.
"While he is the 'boss,' the actual supervision is handled by a cashier supervisor who distributes the work to the various offices," Sudak says in her deposition. "...he is in effect a ghost payroller."
Zuccarelli called Sudak's claims "entirely erroneous and untrue."
"I was a victim of downsizing at Ingalls Hospital, so I understand the anxiety it creates," Zuccarelli said Wednesday. "But (the cuts) were a business decision by Recorder Moore and his deputy."
Zuccarelli said he only gets paid for the time he puts in, which is documented on time sheets. Last year, his compensation totaled about $35,000. The position is budgeted for more than $80,000.
Sudak also named Moore's son, Eric Moore, as a political hire whose "main activity is driving the van to take work out to the satellite offices once a week."
And Askia Abdullah, Moore's liaison to the community and a spokesperson to the media, was spared from cuts due to his clout in the Proviso Township Democratic organization, according to Sudak's deposition. Although Sudak did not mention Abdullah's past, his real estate broker's license was suspended by the state in 1999 due to an overdue tax liability and the failure to file returns, according to the state's Office of Financial and Professional Regulation. He also was removed from a master list of attorneys in the office due to a bankruptcy fraud conviction, according to the state office.
Abdullah did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Shakman's petition seeks changes in the office's hiring practices, including the appointment of a monitor to ensure the Shakman decree is enforced.
"The goal from the beginning of the Shakman case was to get the city, the county and politicians to stop using political factors in employment," said Fred Vars, an attorney at Miller Shakman & Beem.
Sounds pretty simple.
So why do politicians continue to violate it?
Power. Power. Power.

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