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Watchdog accuses County Clerk Karen Yarbrough of running ‘illegal patronage’ operation, wants court oversight

Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Ray Long

Watchdog accuses County Clerk Karen Yarbrough of running ‘illegal patronage’ operation, wants court oversight 

Less than a year into office, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough faces potential federal court oversight of hiring amid a watchdog’s accusations that she’s “running an illegal patronage employment system.”

Veteran anti-patronage attorney Michael Shakman said in a new legal filing that Yarbrough has put the politically connected into jobs that are supposed to be free from such influence, asked her employees for campaign contributions on their private cellphones and transferred certain supervisors to far-flung offices in hopes they’ll quit.

Yarbrough, who was under federal court oversight in her previous job as recorder of deeds, called Shakman’s latest allegations “outrageous” and “preposterous.”“Everything that I’m being accused of is just simply not true,” said Yarbrough, who also is vice chair of the Illinois Democratic Party led by House Speaker Michael Madigan. “We’ll have our day in court.”

Shakman is asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier to appoint the first-ever federal monitor in the clerk’s office to investigate and recommend reforms as well as examine hiring and personnel practices under Yarbrough. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

It’s a contrast to the tenure of Yarbrough’s predecessor. David Orr served 28 years as clerk and did not have a court overseeing hiring.

“I’m disappointed to hear that an office with such a good reputation now (faces) allegations of political discrimination against hardworking employees,” Orr told the Tribune Tuesday.

In 2016, voters opted to eliminate the recorder’s job, then Orr decided to retire as clerk, and Yarbrough went on to win an election to succeed him last year, taking the oath in December.

“I’m disappointed to hear that an office with such a good reputation now (faces) allegations of political discrimination against hardworking employees,” Orr told the Tribune Tuesday.

In 2016, voters opted to eliminate the recorder’s job, then Orr decided to retire as clerk, and Yarbrough went on to win an election to succeed him last year, taking the oath in December.

Nine months later, Shakman is in court as part of a long-running patronage lawsuit that has sought hiring reforms at City Hall and Cook County. Shakman attorney Brian Hays alleged Yarbrough used political reasons to hire people into jobs that are protected by anti-patronage rules.

Among those cited in the filing is Tim Curry, who used to be police chief in Maywood when Yarbrough’s husband was mayor of the Democratic stronghold. Curry is now deputy clerk of security for Karen Yarbrough, where he said his duties include driving her and overseeing a small staff.

“I think they’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m a professional in everything I do,” said Curry, who worked a similar job for Yarbrough in the recorder’s office.

The court filing also accuses Yarbrough of installing a former Illinois House colleague, Cynthia Soto, into a ranking procurement position that should have been free of political influence. Soto could not be reached for comment.

Further, the filing says Yarbrough put Holly Figliuolo, the sister of state Sen. Robert Martwick, into an executive assistant post that was to be free of political considerations. Martwick, who is 38th Ward Democratic committeeman and has contributed $5,300 to Yarbrough’s political fund, said he had nothing to do with his sister getting a job in the clerk’s office. He called his sister an “awesome” worker who previously was employed under former County Assessor Joseph Berrios.

The motion in the Shakman case, which was filed Friday, also states Yarbrough has adopted a policy that will transfer vital records supervisors who have served years in suburban offices to different branches. The clerk has offices at courthouses in Bridgeview, Markham, Maywood, Rolling Meadows and Skokie, in addition to the Loop headquarters.

 

 

Hays contended the suburban rotation is designed to “make life so unbearable” for the supervisors that they’ll have “little choice but to resign,” which then would give Yarbrough a free hand in offering the jobs to her political allies.

Hays noted the rule change doesn’t apply to three other supervisors. One woman exempted from the plans is expected to retire soon, and the two others are unidentified but considered politically connected — one related to a former alderman and the other connected to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the filing states.

Yarbrough defended her rotation policy, saying she found branch offices lacked continuity and led to officials saying one thing at one office and something else at another.

The Shakman filing also alleges that Yarbrough has solicited campaign contributions by texting some employees on their personal cellphones after getting the numbers from government personnel records. Hays called on the judge to issue an order that would prohibit the clerk from soliciting political donations from Shakman-protected workers in her office.

Yarbrough said she opposes the appointment of a federal monitor, calling it unnecessary and expensive for taxpayers.

Karen Yarbrough succeeded David Orr, who served 28 years as clerk.
Karen Yarbrough succeeded David Orr, who served 28 years as clerk. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Shakman’s call for a court monitor comes after Yarbrough was dogged by allegations of clout hiring during her time as county recorder. Yarbrough was criticized for hiring her niece into a high-ranking job despite county nepotism rules. Yarbrough said the niece no longer works there and came on board early on because she needed somebody she could trust.

In addition, county Inspector General Patrick Blanchard said that as recorder, Yarbrough violated the rules by hiring the nephew of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. The nephew was a volunteer for Yarbrough’s Proviso Township Democratic Organization. Blanchard earlier had found that Proviso political volunteers met on Saturdays and a ranking official in Yarbrough’s office would encourage them to apply for job openings in her office.

Yarbrough disagreed with Blanchard’s findings, saying last year that Davis’ hiring was “absolutely not political” and he went through the proper channels that kept politics out of hiring decisions. Yarbrough also said volunteers at the township organization asked about jobs and were told where they could find a list on the internet. She called Blanchard’s report “much ado about nothing.”

The attempt to get a monitor appointed to oversee hiring in the clerk’s office is part of the Shakman suit, which he brought in 1969 to try to get politics out of personnel decisions for most government jobs. The resulting set of reforms is known as the Shakman decree.

The recorder and the assessor have remained under a federal monitor for years, costing the county millions of dollars in legal fees. Last year, a monitor was put in place to oversee county Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown’s office. Brown, whose office has been under federal criminal investigation, is not seeking reelection next year.

Some public officials have reached compliance with Shakman standards and no longer require monitors. Those include Preckwinkle’s sprawling county government and the sheriff’s office under Tom Dart. The city of Chicago also reached Shakman compliance and a federal monitor was removed under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in June 2014.

Yarbrough’s political star has been on the rise. In Democratic circles, she’s been mentioned as a potential replacement if 85-year-old Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White decides to retire instead of serving out a full term. Both White and Yarbrough are allies of Madigan, the state Democratic chairman, and have given jobs to the speaker’s backers.

On Tuesday, Yarbrough said she is “not running” for secretary of state.

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Twitter @RayLong



 



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