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Stroger says patronage over; hiring monitor disagrees
County settles claims for $3.2 million; ex-judge suggests changes

Thursday, September 04, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger needs to do far more to eliminate illegal patronage, a federal hiring monitor said Wednesday after commissioners agreed to spend $3.2 million to settle claims from more than 100 people denied county jobs or promotions because of politics.

Former Cook County Circuit Judge Julia Nowicki's comments came after Stroger's top spokesman declared that patronage has been "completely eliminated" in county government. Nowicki said she applauded the notion that Stroger's team thinks patronage has been curbed while suggesting that her staff that oversees county hiring has played a role.

But she also offered a list of changes she wants to see before she could "begin to be persuaded" that the days of illegal county hiring are over. They include appointment of a politically neutral chief of the human resources bureau; a list of job descriptions for all county employees, including those exempt from the political hiring ban; a process for independent performance evaluations for all county employees; and creation of an environment where "all employees feel safe that they can be heard."

Nowicki was appointed in November 2006 to monitor county hiring as part of the landmark Shakman case that prohibits hiring, promotions and discipline based on politics for most Chicago and county employees. Two months before her appointment,
FBI agents raided the county building as part of an ongoing probe into illegal hiring.

Her office sifted through 220 claims from people who said they were patronage victims between Aug. 28, 2004, when Stroger's later father, John, was board president, and Feb. 2, 2007, about two months after the younger Stroger took office. In the end, 105 will get awards.

"Probably 99 percent of this did not happen during this administration," said Commissioner Joseph Moreno, a Chicago Democrat and Stroger ally.

Later, Eugene Mullins, Stroger's spokesman, said, "I think it's completely eliminated now."

Mullins pointed to $12 million in City Hall awards to 1,424 people in the Shakman case. "In comparison to the city, a small number of claims were filed . . . and even a smaller number will receive awards," he said.

But Nowicki said the city's hiring monitor considered complaints from a work force of 40,000 over a nearly seven-year period. In the case of the county, the workers numbered about 11,000, and the time span was about 29 months, she said.

"I want to stress that these 105 claims being awarded are not the only instances of illegal patronage within the county employment system that we uncovered during the course of our investigation," Nowicki added.

She also said some employees did not come forward with complaints out of "fear of the consequences" and her staff would keep "a particular focus on reports of punishment for filing a claim."

Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), who has long alleged the county payroll is patronage padded, noted that Nowicki "has indicated Cook County has a long, long way to go to prevent these types of abuses we have seen in patronage hiring. . . . The Stroger administration continues to drag its feet on the reforms that she has suggested, but hopefully that will change."

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