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Feds take troubling clout queries to the next level

Tuesday, August 02, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times

How did Tom Hendrix, who served 30 months in a federal prison for hiring someone to commit a murder, get a $68,000 job as a Cook County Hospital administrator? Why do people who are heavily involved in Cook County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado's 26th Ward Democratic Organization have such lucrative jobs in county government? Why are Cook County workers who refuse to work on elections of county officials penalized by being placed on tough shifts?

The patronage issues that have dogged Chicago's City Hall -- "clout" lists that encourage the hiring or promotions of people with political connections -- are now creating controversy at the Cook County government. Sun-Times reporters Abdon M. Pallasch and Steve Patterson obtained a 1998 list of county employees that was apparently updated and maintained by people working for Maldonado. The list contains comments about who should be granted favoritism and who shouldn't, for example: "Refused to work on election day. Placed on tough shift" or "Will help him after election."

Interviews with county employees show some on the list actively campaigned for Maldonado. A Cook County court clerk employee said Maldonado "gave me the job," and she canvassed voters on his behalf. The list includes names of key coordinators in Maldonado's campaigns, including ex-con Hendrix. Maldonado says he knows people on the list but denies knowledge of the list itself: "Even if I think it, I'd never do that." Well, someone at Cook County was blatantly directing employees to do it.

Even if Maldonado did not know about the list -- "I have no clout," he says -- it appears that some of his hires and those of other county officials fly in the face of the Shakman decree meant to prevent flagrant patronage for non-policy jobs in local government.

Attorney Michael Shakman, whose attempts to open up local government jobs to non-political hires resulted in the Shakman decree, says a judge should review Cook County hiring practices given the indictments of city officials charged with fraudulently flouting the anti-patronage law. He is right. With a $3 billion budget and 25,000 jobs, there is a lot of latitude for questionable hiring at Cook County government. The issues raised by the Sun-Times story need immediate scrutiny.

The federal investigation into the Hired Truck program is leading to bigger names. Former city Water Department official Donald Tomczak pleaded guilty Friday and has told the feds that Victor Reyes, Mayor Daley's former patronage chief and head of the Hispanic Democratic Organization, directed him where to allocate city workers for political campaigns.

It's too bad it has been left up to the federal government to ferret out corruption at City Hall. It looks like an equally unfortunate remedy may also be needed at the county level.

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