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Monday, August 24, 2009

Patronage Pays off For Stroger Cronies

The Chicago Sun Times has the latest in a string political corruption revelation in an area in which this appears common place.

Patronage workers with the Cook County Forest Preserve District are seeing more green these days -- in their paychecks.

With people everywhere facing tough financial times, the 28 forest preserve patronage workers who've been on the payroll since 2006 all got hefty raises in the following two years, an analysis by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association has found. They're among 38 forest preserve workers who are exempt from the Shakman court order that bans political political hiring in city and county government.

On average, the exempt employees were paid $98,071 last year. Nine of them saw their salaries increase 19 percent or more between 2006 and 2008.

Between the fiasco surrounding former Governor Blagojevich, the scandal at the University of Illinois, and the growing scandal surrounding the Olympics, we might all forget that the Cook County government challenges all in the area for sustained and brazen corruption.

This story is remarkable not only for its brazen corruption, after all "patronage" is used in the story as though its expected, but by how the culture of corruption in the area has allowed it to happen.

In 1970, Michael Shakman became an independent delegate to the Illinois Constitutional convention. He became a champion against one of the many corrupt political practices in the state, political patronage. He then engaged in a nearly fifteen year battle against the powers that be in the political system and won. In 1983, the Shakman Decree was created. The Shakman Decree made it illegal to hire and fire city, county and state workers based on political factors. (excluded were those in a position of policy making and anything else where political ideology is important to the job) As such, about 40 city, county, and state offices disallow the practice of political patronage.

As it turns out, the victory was short lived. For the last twenty five years, the city, county and state have systematically assaulted the Shakman Decree and made more and more offices "exempt" from it. Mayor Daley is at the top of the list of those that try and muddy the waters on Shakman so that cronies can get cushy jobs.

The settlement is the result of the "Shakman case," first brought by attorney Michael Shakman in 1969.

Shakman challenged the city's legendarily corrupt patronage hiring system and won, but the city has been shown to have engaged in massive politically sponsored hiring despite court rulings to end the practice and assurances from city officials that the federal court decrees have been followed.

Daley has spent most of his administration fighting the federal Shakman decrees and continued the fight even after federal prosecutors last year won the convictions of four aides who allegedly rigged hiring to favor pro-Daley political workers.

Daley has managed to avoid being directly linked to corrupt hiring practices that have benefited his political campaigns and political allies.

The Cook County Board President, Todd Stroger, is also no stranger to this very assault.

So, just what exactly is it that 500 political employees hired by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger do all day?

For two years, a court-appointed watchdog has been asking Stroger that question. For two years, she has not gotten an answer.

Cook County Compliance Administrator Julia Nowicki, a former Cook County judge herself, made public Tuesday in a resignation letter that, as part of her quest to root out patronage abuses, she asked Stroger's administration to provide a job description for each of the 500 so-called "Shakman exempt" political employees Stroger can hire.

This brings us back to the latest scandal. The workers in question work for theCook County Forest Preserve District. The Cook County Forest Preserve, for unclear reasons, was given an exemption from Shakman and so it hired these 24 and likely more "patronage" employees. As the Sun Times reports, most of these folks are consistent contributors to the campaign of Todd Stroger or the 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization which Todd's dad, John, controlled when he was alive. For their exercise of their first "first amendment" right (since a political contribution is your first amendment right), they were rewarded with a cushy raise of an average of near 20%. Well, I should clear up. There's no proof that these raises were the result of their contributions. All we know is that they just happened to occur all at about the same time period.

It's important to note that the county of Cook has one of the nation's highest sales taxes after Stroger pushed through a massive sales tax increase. (it's currently north of 10%) The sales tax increase came in response to a budget crunch and was passed in the summer of last year. It goes without saying that the budget crunch didn't affect these particular salary increases.

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