By Monique Garcia
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration on Thursday sent layoff notices to 29 workers at the Illinois Department of Transportation who held controversial patronage positions, a move the governor's office said is aimed at ridding the agency of political hires made under Democratic predecessors.
Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly confirmed the layoff notices went out to employees classified as "staff assistants," a special position created to hire hundreds of people without having to go through strict personnel procedures designed to keep politics out of most state hiring.
The patronage hires were the subject of a scathing report the state's top ethics investigator issued in 2014. The probe found the lax rules had been in place since before ex-Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office in 2003, but determined that such hiring escalated under former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's administration.
"The duration and pervasiveness of IDOT's improper acts have undoubtedly denied countless qualified candidates the opportunity to lawfully obtain state employment on the basis of merit," the report stated.
Since then, a federal judge has put a monitor in place to keep tabs on IDOT hiring, but the findings gave Rauner plenty of material to use against Quinn during the 2014 governor campaign.
In a statement Thursday, Rauner declared his administration had "put an end to the illegal patronage hiring that started under Blagojevich and continued under Quinn," and said the layoffs were an attempt to "restore citizens' faith in state government so it works for them and not the political insiders."
Despite cultivating a public persona as a political outsider, Quinn was no stranger to political hiring. After serving as an organizer for Democrat Dan Walker's successful 1972 campaign for governor, Quinn joined Walker's staff, where his duties included dishing out patronage as a liaison to state lawmakers.
Later, Quinn left the Illinois Industrial Commission after lawmakers launched an investigation into whether Walker had been hiding the payroll costs of governor's office workers on state boards and commissions to make it look like the governor's payroll had dropped.
As governor, Quinn became embroiled in several controversies involving patronage hiring. One came a month after he lost his re-election bid when he named Lou Bertuca, his campaign manager, to serve as the $160,000-a-year executive director of the agency that runs the home of the White Sox.
Bertuca replaced Quinn's former spokeswoman, who held the executive director post the previous two years. The move prompted a new state law that limits any director appointed to a governor-controlled board or commission to serving 60 days if the appointment was made after the governor loses an election.
Rauner also has been accused of hiding the true cost of his office payroll, with Democrats in control of the General Assembly arguing he has put pressure on state services by paying his staff with dollars set aside for other agencies. The administration has previously said outside offices covered roughly $3 million in salary costs for Rauner's staff. An Associated Press review put that figure closer to $4 million.
The layoffs are effective Sept. 15. Once complete, the transportation agency will no longer employ the so-called staff assistants, according to Rauner's office.
The administration said the layoffs are in compliance with a settlement agreement reached after the Teamsters Local 916 sued to block similar layoffs in 2014 as Quinn sought to control the political fallout of the hiring scandal.
Attorneys for workers represented by the union argued that employees should not be punished because of the actions of higher-ups. Teamsters representatives could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Chicago Tribune's Rick Pearson and Kim Geiger contributed.
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