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Cook County could pay $3.2 million to settle patronage claims
Commissioners expected to vote on deal Wednesday

Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County taxpayers face a $3.2 million tab to settle the claims of more than 100 people who were illegally denied county jobs or promotions because of politics, a federal hiring monitor and county officials confirmed Tuesday.

County Board President
Todd Stroger supports the proposed awards, which commissioners were expected to vote on at Wednesday's board meeting.

Legally challenging the awards could prove even more costly and interfere with the county's goal of ending federal court supervision of its hiring practices by spring, Assistant State's Atty. Patrick Driscoll Jr. told county commissioners in a letter recommending approval.

The proposal comes just months after Chicago taxpayers shelled out $12 million in payments to 1,424 people to settle violations of the Shakman decree, a landmark legal action that bars political consideration in hiring, promotions and discipline for most government jobs in Chicago and Cook County.

RetiredCookCounty Judge Julia Nowicki was appointed to evaluate the county's compliance with the federal court ban on patronage in November 2006, two months after FBI agents raided county offices in an ongoing investigation of hiring practices.

"I think anybody who watched FBI agents raid county offices years ago and cart out documents based on an investigation of illegal patronage hiring will know this has been a problem for some time," said Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), who frequently criticizes Stroger for padding the county payroll with political cronies.

"It's just an additional cost-of-corruption issue," added Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), a Claypool ally. "My interest is, 'Are we making any progress?' This is just the tab."

Earlier this year Nowicki reported that Stroger has failed to take "simple" steps to prevent illegal patronage hiring. She also told county commissioners she could not investigate dozens of allegations of hiring abuses because she didn't want to interfere with the federal investigation.

In addition to recommending ways the county could eliminate patronage, Nowicki was asked to consider more than 200 claims of illegal patronage that allegedly occurred between Aug. 28, 2004, when Stroger's late father, John, was president, and Feb. 2, 2007, about two months after Todd Stroger took office. She determined that about half will lead to a monetary award, Driscoll wrote.

Nowicki confirmed that the board would consider $3.2 million in awards for "victims of illegal patronage" but declined to elaborate Tuesday. She said she would discuss how the awards were determined after the board meeting.

The county has paid about $1.5 million in legal fees for the operation of Nowicki's office.

Stroger issued an executive order Tuesday barring retaliation against anyone who cooperated with or received an award from Nowicki, said Laura Lechowicz Felicione, a special counsel to Stroger.

Stroger on Wednesday also plans to propose an ordinance that would require elected county officials who make county personnel recommendations to commit them to writing. The ordinance would allow such recommendations based only on skill and experience, rather than politics, and bar retaliation against employees and county officials who allege illegal patronage practices.

The board enacted a similar but less specific ordinance that did not require recommendations be put in writing when Nowicki was appointed.

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